Covid 19: How Safe is the Stock Island Homeless Shelter? What More Can be Done?

KOTS sleeping arrangements before COVID-19

by Arnaud and Naja Girard

So far, the Florida Keys have had 40 people test positive for Covid-19. Thursday saw the first local death from the virus, a Key West man who was only 55-year-old.

Among the particularly vulnerable are those who live in senior citizen group homes and the local homeless shelter.

There are approximately 119 people living at the Stock Island homeless shelter (KOTS). What if one of them contracts the virus in town, comes back that night to eat dinner, watch tv, and sleep, all in very close quarters with the other “clients” assisted every night at the shelter? In all probability he (or she) would infect a very large number of his brethren who, in turn, would go back to town the next morning to work, as many do, or simply to stroll the streets.

The dangers created by this situation are obvious.

According to the 2019 Homeless Population Point in Time Survey the Keys has a population of about 500 homeless people on a given night with 190 of them living in various emergency shelters.

If the virus was to spread through this very vulnerable population and 20% of them needed hospitalization those additional people, all getting sick more or less simultaneously, could contribute to maxing out the Keys’ hospital capacity. And once infected, the homeless population could also contribute to spreading the virus.

When we asked Key West Mayor, Teri Johnston, a week ago, about the clustered conditions at the shelter she told us she was working with Sheriff Rick Ramsay to add more ground, along with some tents that could be used to add distance between beds. We were able to verify today that this has been done. Two military-style tents have been set up, so beds are now at least 6 feet apart.

But the situation is far from perfect, according to Michael Riley, who works at the KOTS homeless shelter. “I can’t really keep people from sitting together to watch TV or from gathering together if they want to.”

There’s only one television at KOTS and every night it plays from a stock of donated VHS tapes and DVD’s. When we were last at KOTS (before Covid-19) we witnessed between 20 and 30 people crammed together after dinner to watch Sylvester Stallone be “Rambo.”

Elicia Pintabona, the Executive Director who runs KOTS for the City, through the Southernmost Homeless Assistance League (SHAL), said that much has been done at KOTS to respond to the Covid-19 health crisis.

“KOTS just put new measures in place to ensure clients are social distancing appropriately. If they can’t or won’t take the precautions, they simply can’t stay,” said Elicia.

Additionally, every KOTS client must now wash hands before being admitted, clients are sleeping “head to toe,” and the city has provided hand washing and sanitizing stations.

“We have instituted a once a day only policy regarding coming and going. We found that clients were leaving and coming back multiple times a day. This increased the risk and vulnerability of the facility, so we’ve limited that to once a day. And again they must wash their hands upon entrance.”

The shelter is now open 24 hours a day in an attempt to keep the homeless safely sheltered “at home.” SHAL provides breakfast and has teamed up with the SOS community kitchen which is now providing daily lunches. St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen is providing dinner, as it has for years.

However, when it comes to Covid-19, some key concerns remain.

Elicia says the shelter currently has enough face masks for its staff and clients. However, when we asked people on the ground, they said KOTS’ clients are not wearing the masks. While the CDC’s Covid-19 guidance up until today told members of the public to wear a face mask only if they are sick, today that guidance changed. CDC is now recommending that everyone “wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

In Asia, the ubiquitous use of masks is credited as an essential part of how Hong Kong manages to stay relatively open, including restaurants, while keeping the epidemic in check. (Masks of infected people will block the virus. Since the virus can be spread by people who do not yet know they are infected, everyone should wear a mask, thereby protecting others.)

Wearing mask at KOTS would protect the group from rapid contamination. Alicia agrees, “We actually just requested a large quantity of masks from a local sewing group and also from the City’s Emergency Management Liaison in order to stay ahead of the demand.”

But the shelter does have a “wish list” of items that would help make KOTS even safer: The shelter needs at least one ‘no-contact thermometer’ to test people’s temperature at the door. Two or three more televisions with DVD capacity would help divide the people into smaller groups every night. And Liquid Hand Soap is high on the list.

Elicia told us KOTS has long been using 25 cases of bleach a month, under normal conditions, to keep KOTS clean but is now additionally using hospital virucide disinfectant to disinfect the shelter twice a day. She said they are also waiting for an additional stock of virucide foggers and spray foggers in addition of the ones the shelter has been using.

And Elicia is also hoping to get some of those 5-minute Covid-19 testers we’ve all been hearing about as soon as possible.

Florida Keys residents have always had mixed feelings about the local homeless population; however, it is clearly in everyone’s best interests to assist the shelter in every possible way. People can also donate to the shelter directly by clicking on the donate button on the home page of SHAL’s website.

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