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Coronavirus changes how Red Cross provides shelter when disaster strikes

Canoga Park resident Richard Ma heeded a voluntary evacuation warning as the Woolsey Fire charred almost 97,000 acres in November 2018 and was lucky to have friends who took him in. The UCLA sociology major, 17 at the time, felt compelled to do something for others driven from their homes, so he offered to help out at a nearby American Red Cross shelter.

Over 250,000 people were evacuated and 1,075 residences were destroyed during the fire. Hundreds who fled their San Fernando Valley communities slept on cots laid out in two gyms and a multipurpose room on the campus of Pierce College.



A steady stream of news played on television sets throughout the shelter, one of nine set up in Los Angeles County. Ma was there as families watched footage of their houses burning down. He stayed up late trying to console people who lost everything.

“I was making coffee all night long on my first shift,” he said.

Simple interactions over a warm beverage or donated meal offered some survivors a chance to vent. Face to face, Ma reassured them they weren’t alone. There would be people willing to help them as they embarked on complicated journeys toward security.

Ma still volunteers with the Red Cross, currently as a program leader in the Los Angeles region. He said the nonprofit, as well as emergency management and public health officials, will still be there for people if disaster strikes.

But as California battles the COVID-19 pandemic while transitioning into fire season, agencies are making significant changes to how they offer relief.

Getting more people into hotel rooms – whether via a partnership or giving evacuees vouchers –  is a solution relief agencies are exploring. The latter was an option made available to the roughly 7,800 evacuees who fled the Apple fire in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.

“Generally, instead of opening shelters, the local Red Cross is prioritizing individual hotel rooms or dormitory-style rooms to make sure people have a safe place to stay during the Apple Fire, and can also maintain COVID-19 safety guidelines,” officials wrote in a bulletin posted for evacuees.

The spread of COVID-19 may be less likely at a hotel because living quarters there are more isolated than they would be at shelters, where dozens of people could wind up sleeping in the same room together.

But in case disaster strikes where hotels are not a viable option, Red Cross officials are preparing to ensure a safe environment at shelters,  said Marium Mohiuddin, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles region.

The Red Cross has stocked up on cleaning supplies, thermometers, personal protective equipment and other items to properly sanitize shelters and stem potential outbreaks, Mohiuddin said. Volunteers and staff are now trained to minimize direct contact with evacuees.

“We might be six feet apart, but we are still going to be there for them and providing assistance to get them to the next stage of the recovery process,” he added.

Red Cross shelters will cap their occupancy at 50 evacuees to ensure that displaced residents and personnel can practice social distancing, Ma said. Arrangements may have to be made for more facilities to house a similar number of evacuees. Operating a larger number of smaller shelters means even more volunteers may be required during an emergency to fill support roles like reception, meal distribution and information collection.

The relief agency reached out to nurses, paramedics, medical students and others trained in health care to register as volunteers. They may be tasked with monitoring evacuees for signs of coronavirus.

Anyone affected by catastrophe will be welcome at an evacuation center, and people who have nowhere else to go will be offered lodging, Ma said. However, those who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 will be sequestered from other evacuees said Marilyn Jimenez, Red Cross spokeswoman for the Los Angeles region.

“If you are showing symptoms, then you wouldn’t go into the shelter,” Jimenez said. “You would instead go into the isolation center, which is a separate area, to make sure you are not with the rest of the staff and people staying at the shelter. We will be working with local health authorities on that.”

Part of the cost of implementing these new precautions may be covered by the federal government with a public assistance program announced by FEMA in March. It offers reimbursements to state and local governments, as well as certain nonprofits, for money spent on emergency operations centers, medical care and other expenses.

Many people didn’t necessarily want to depend on or use government services for their longer-term housing needs, said Helen Chavez, assistant director for the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management. “But, there was a subset of individuals who did need that, and we worked with them.”

Often, displaced residents choose to stay with relatives during an emergency. But visiting loved ones in places where COVID-19 is spreading may be risky, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Evacuees and the residents of homes who take them in should be extra cautious to prevent the potential spread of the virus, especially if anyone in the shared household has risk factors for serious illness.

However, hotels, like shelters, apartments and dormitories, are still congregate environments. There is a higher chance of people interacting with one another and possibly spreading COVID-19 in those settings than in a single-family residence, according to the CDC.

Chavez said county officials are prepared to keep evacuees who are housed in congregate living arrangements safe. She pointed to their experiences with Project Roomkey. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority program began providing rooms in April to people living on the street in hopes of limiting their potential exposure to COVID-19.

Those aided by Project Roomkey must practice social distancing, may only leave hotels for essential tasks and are screened twice a day for signs of COVID-19. No outbreaks have been reported since the program began in April, Chavez said. It housed 4,073 people in the South Bay, San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley, Antelope Valley and throughout the greater Los Angeles Region as of Monday, Aug. 3.

Source: Orange County Register

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