The challenges of falling victim to COVID-19 were compounded by the lack of a phone and roof for Michael Gates.
The 71-year-old said he woke up at Dorothy Day Hospitality House on Wednesday morning, certain he had the virus and wanting to get tested.
“I got on my bicycle and rode to the fire station,” he said via email, indicating the Silver Lake Station, which has been serving as a day center for people facing homelessness.
There, he called Mayo Clinic to inquire about testing, but was unable to secure a ride to the testing site. He eventually called 911 to be taken to the emergency room, where he fears he accrued a $500 or larger bill.
“It’s a struggle for these folks, especially if they want to get test results,” said Dan Fifield, co-founder of The Landing MN, which operates the Silver Lake Station day center for the City of Rochester. “It can get challenging.”
Following a positive test later that day, Gates was taken to 105 N. Broadway Ave., where Olmsted County and Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota have been holding three rooms available for people without homes who need to be quarantined.
Now, he’s sequestered in a room with limited contact, waiting for the virus to run its course. His solitary suffering started, he said, with waking 15 times Wednesday night with chills despite the thermostat being set at 86 degrees.
Dave Dunn, the county’s housing and redevelopment authority director, said the quarantine rooms were full Thursday, something that hadn’t happened since the county opened the transitional housing location in July.
“We went from July or early August into late October, and those rooms hadn’t been used,” he said, adding that their use has been increasing in recent weeks.
Illness spurs change
Meanwhile, service providers working with homeless residents are also seeing an increased need to quarantine.
The first cases hitting local agencies were reported Tuesday evening, followed by more on Wednesday, resulting in struggles to maintain a full staff.
“That made us realize we had a situation we needed to address,” said Dunn, who had received notifications that Catholic Charities and The Landing had staff members out of commission.
Partnerships established in the spring created an opening to develop a quick plan, moving day center operations at The Salvation Army and Silver Lake Station back to Mayo Civic Center on Friday morning, with warming center operations established Friday night.
Both moves are expected to last at least four weeks.
To help deal with staff shortages connected to the day center, Karen Lemke, Rochester Public Library’s head of marketing and community engagement, said library staff is assisting The Landing’s efforts.
Dunn said county health, housing and human services staff will do the same to fill gaps at the warming center, which is operated by Catholic Charities through a county contract.
Additionally, Mayo Clinic was brought in to provide testing services Friday to determine how much COVID-19 has spread among people dealing with homelessness.
“The only real way to know is to do some testing,” Dunn said, predicting 50 to 100 people could be tested Friday, followed by additional tests in a couple weeks.
New plan developed
Anyone who tested positive Friday without a place to quarantine will likely be moved into the closed warming center site at 200 Fourth St. SE, which Dunn said provides four separate spaces for private occupancy.
If the numbers exceed four, and the 105 Broadway rooms remain full, Dunn said people will need to start doubling up in the large warming center spaces designed to hold multiple bunk beds.
The goal, he said, is to keep people off the street and provide an around-the-clock place to safely stay while sick or infectious.
“We just think right now there is probably enough smoke that it will probably be needed,” he said of the added space.
While Gates had stayed at Dorothy Day House the night before being tested, Dorothy Day Board President Ryan Cardarella said he hasn’t heard of another case connected to the shelter.
“We reduced our capacity back to one person per room earlier in the week,” he said, adding that the operation screens guests, who quickly go to their rooms to avoid contact.
“Chance for exposure is relatively low,” he said. The facility can handle up to seven people a night, but frequently sees rooms go empty.
Fifield, a former emergency room nurse, said he’s noticed an increase in confirmed and suspected cases among the day center visitors, who have numbered about 60 per day in recent times.
Guests tend to move in and out of the center throughout the day, being screened when they arrive and asked to maintain safe distances. Masks are also required.
“We dodged a bullet for a long, long time during this pandemic,” he said. “I’m not sure what the factor was that made it increase all of a sudden.”