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On Wednesday afternoon, Carroll County saw the first clients for a new temporary medical respite center on the Westminster campus of East Middle School that aims to support homeless people threatened by the coronavirus.
First opened Monday evening, the center — a collection of large white tents and marked-off camping areas on the athletic fields near the Best Facility, a small satellite structure behind the main school building — is designed to safely shelter and support homeless people who are medically vulnerable, or even any who have COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“We are a medical respite, meaning people will have access to doctors who are doing rounds; there will be a medical doctor and a behavioral health doctor doing rounds each day here and multiple nurses on site during the day,” said Celene Steckel, director of the Carroll County Department of Citizen Services. “This is for homeless individuals who maybe have a general medical need for respite, but then also primarily for people who are COVID positive, or people who are awaiting test results.”
The two men who arrived at the location Wednesday afternoon were of the first category, Steckel said, potentially at risk but not COVID-19 positive.
“Currently we have no known folks in our homeless population that are either positive or awaiting results,” she said. “We hope it stays that way.”
The location would also serve as a respite for anyone currently in the county’s year-round shelters, should they become symptomatic and need to wait on test results, she said.
The medical respite site is a collaboration between Carroll County Public Schools, which is providing security; Access Carroll, which is providing medical support; Human Services Programs of Carroll County, which is providing for food and hygiene needs; the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office and Westminster Police Department, which will be doing regular patrols; and the county government, according to Steckel.
Entry to the respite is only by referral.
“Right now we are taking referrals from three entities,” Steckel said. “The Carroll County Health Department, Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc., and [Carroll Hospital].”
The Westminster armory building on Longwell Avenue had initially been considered, but the layout of the East Middle campus was determined to work better, Steckel said. Those on respite without any present COVID-19 concerns will initially be staying on cots in the small gymnasium in the Best Facility, she said, while those who wish to, or who are COVID-19 positive, will be able to camp on the athletic field.
The county has arranged for a handful of the most vulnerable homeless people to stay in hotel rooms while awaiting potentially permanent housing, according to Rebekah Siebe, who does development and compliance for Access Carroll. But she said the outdoor arrangements at the respite site are actually ideal for preventing the potential spread of the novel coronavirus, with each campsite measured at 40 by 40 feet, and each row of sites separated by 12-foot aisles.
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“In a hotel all the surfaces you don’t know how many times have they been touched, how many times have they been cleaned,” she said, noting she has heard of health care workers camping in their own yards for the same reason, because of risk of contamination with their families."
Many of the people who may use the medical respite site are already Access Carroll clients, Siebe said, and so in some ways their using the campsites could improve access to Access Carroll providers.
“Some of them need case management from a behavioral health standpoint, and right now they are not coming into the office, but our case managers can come here and speak to them,” she said. “We’re going to take vitals, we’re going to take temperature checks. We want to make sure we catch those people; even if they are in general population now, it doesn’t mean that in three days they won’t start a temperature.”
Anyone who is referred to the respite and is homeless and not currently known to the county’s homeless system will go through an intake process designed to connect them with resources, Steckel said. The idea being that the respite can serve not only to protect people from COVID-19, but to move them into a job or housing, or being the path of getting them connected to whatever resources they may lack.
“We are getting some people into housing through the rapid rehousing program, and we are looking to ramp that up as this outbreak continues,” Steckel said. “We have the focus on the homeless people with the team pulling in and trying to get people into housing. That’s really the goal of this, in the end.”