City pays local hotels to shelter COVID-19 patients

Courtesy of the CDC

By Alika Medina / NM News Port

With the striking rise in the number of COVID-19 cases  this fall, the city of Albuquerque has turned to some local hotels to keep vulnerable residents safe and quarantined.  

Since July, the city has been renting hundreds of rooms in several local hotels to provide isolation for people who wouldn’t have a safe place to stay otherwise. 

“We started with one hotel and that was for COVID-positive individuals who did not have homes and needed to be quarantined or isolated,” Carol Pierce, director of Family and Community Services with the city of Albuquerque, said.

Now, Pierce said, the program has grown to involve multiple hotels and goes beyond “health hotels” for COVID patients and includes “wellness hotels” to temporarily house vulnerable residents who are at risk of contracting the virus. 

Lisa Huval, the city’s deputy director of Housing and Homelessness, said the wellness hotels primarily provide a safe place for individuals who are over 60 or have underlying health conditions.

“They are healthy folks that we are trying to keep healthy,” Huval said. 

Pierce said the health hotels are housing residents who are actually COVID-positive as well as those who need to be quarantined because they have had some exposure.

She said there are two health hotels and three wellness hotels, plus the city provides housing assistance at the Westside Emergency Housing Center. She said one of the hotels serves essential workers and first responders who are COVID-positive. 

Pierce declined to name the hotels, expressing concern for everyone’s privacy.

Altogether, Pierce said, some 500 people are being assisted by the city’s emergency housing program.

The program provides not only safe shelter but includes medical assistance. The city has been working with New Mexico Medical Reserve Corps which has about 2,000 registered volunteers.

The corps includes both licensed medical and non-medical volunteers.

“We are looking for dedication, people with compassion, people who have the skills,”  Bobbie Mackenzie, New Mexico Medical Reserve Corps state volunteer coordinator, said. 

The city of Albuquerque was given $150 million through the federal CARES Act to provide for the hotel rooms, plus food and transportation.

Mackenzie said there are medical volunteers getting paid because of the immensity of the work and how hazardous it is. 

“Not everyone has experience or knows what it means to work with a vulnerable population and that is a special skill set. Some of that is being learned on the job.”

— Carol Pierce, director of Family and Community Services with the city of Albuquerque

“It’s dependent on the hotel,” Mackenzie said. “We’ve had as many as 55 in one hotel.” 

He said the program clients are asked to stay until they have tested negative twice after their 14-day stay.

Pierce said health care workers are screened every time they come in and are provided with personal protective equipment.

“They have face shields and depending on what they’re doing, they might wear gloves and we do have gowns as well,” Pierce said. 

As a former nurse, Pierce said that in a pandemic, everything is unexpected and sometimes you just have to improvise. 

“Not everyone has experience or knows what it means to work with a vulnerable population. And that is a special skill set. Some of that is being learned on the job,” Pierce said. “I don’t know that anybody knows exactly what to do in a pandemic, but you do know basic precautions.”

Pierce mentioned how thankful she is for what Albuquerque has been able to accomplish. 

“We’ve had to keep these hotels going for our most vulnerable residents here in Albuquerque,” Pierce said, because it helps protect those who need to rely on the homeless shelters. 

“I’m very grateful and proud for the partnerships,” she said. 

Alika Medina is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. She can be reached at nmnewsport@gmail.com or on Twitter @Medina_Alika.