Hunt for Quarantine Locations Consumes Governments Across U.S.
Near the famed Pebble Beach golf course, two dozen people exposed to the new coronavirus sit confined to a cluster of unused buildings on a California seafront park.
Hundreds more have been whisked to military bases in California, Georgia and Texas, to count down two weeks of isolation. In San Francisco, a few may soon be housed in recreational vehicles leased by the city. Georgia is using trailers stationed within a state park called Hard Labor Creek.
As President Donald Trump prepares to declare a national emergency to slow the pandemic, health officials across the U.S. are grappling with a problem rarely seen since the days when tuberculosis and polio swept the land: where to put people who have been quarantined.
Any choice can face fierce and immediate blowback.
In the hard-hit Seattle area, officials in the suburb of Kent have gone to court to stop the county from housing patients in a former Econo Lodge motel that it bought, renovated and staffed for $5.5 million. In California, Costa Mesa obtained a court order that led federal officials to drop plans for housing patients there. San Antonio briefly tried to block federal officials from releasing quarantined people from a local Air Force base.
And yet, public health experts say quarantines can make the difference between overwhelming hospitals with a flood of patients or keeping numbers manageable. And those people have to stay somewhere.
“You should try to contain as much of the disease as you can,” said George Rutherford, an epidemiology professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “If you’re talking about an extra 100,000 cases in the ICUs, that’s a lot of ICU beds. Anything that will flatten the curve is good.”
Georgia State Representative Dave Belton, whose constituents live in the rural towns near Hard Labor Creek, said people initially were “angry and shocked” when they heard that infected patients would be quarantined in seven trailers there, about an hour east of Atlanta. “People move out here to get away from this kind of thing,” he said.
But when he explained that the quarantine spot was small and far from public areas, that law enforcement would be on duty 24/7 and that trash would be incinerated, they calmed down. “We’re a welcoming community,” he said.
San Francisco’s solution may be the most unusual. The city has leased 30 recreational vehicles, at a cost of $443,000, for homeless people who test positive but don’t require hospitalization.
The virus arrived as San Francisco, with its sky-high rents, was struggling with a surging homeless population estimated at more than 8,000 people. Leaders fear the results if infection starts spreading through shelters or tent encampments. Aware that 30 campers may not be enough, city leaders are also searching for vacant residential properties — a rarity — and asking hotels to identify unused rooms.
“It’s important that we take measures like this to care for our most vulnerable residents,” Mayor London Breed said when she announced the program.
Nothing, however, drove home the need for quarantine spaces more than the arrival in California this week of a cruise ship bearing infected passengers and crew.
The Grand Princess docked at the Port of Oakland on Monday after days circling the waters off the Golden Gate, kept there by state and federal officials as they searched for a safe place to bring it ashore.
By Tuesday evening, more than 760 passengers had been bused to nearby Travis Air Force Base. Another 42 had been flown to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego, while 124 went to Georgia’s Dobbins Air Reserve Base and 98 to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Lackland had already housed quarantined passengers from another infected ship — the Diamond Princess.
As controlled environments, military bases make for good quarantines, said Nasia Safdar, a doctor who is director of infection prevention at the University of Wisconsin, Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. A successful quarantine tends to a patient’s meals, provides medicines or supplies — and keeps the world at bay. Bases have the resources, not to mention the guards.
“This is a very high-risk scenario, inherently, and there’s a lot of logistical support needed, so a military environment helps,” Safdar said.
Grand Princess passengers showing mild signs of illness — any illness — were further separated, so they could be monitored while being tested. Up to 24 were taken to Asilomar State Beach near Monterey. Others went to a vacant hotel in San Carlos, just south of San Francisco, that can house 120 people. California Governor Gavin Newsom said the state had been searching for appropriate quarantine sites for a week and wanted more.
But in a sign of just how touchy quarantine decisions can be, Newsom took aim at Texas on Thursday over its stance on passengers from the Grand Princess. Only Texas residents are being accepted for quarantine at Lackland Air Force Base, a decision that San Antonio’s mayor explained on Facebook was made to avoid straining the hospitals.
“Folks in Georgia are doing more, and the people, of course the state of California have always done more,” Newsom said at a press conference. “That has not helped in our logistics, to be candid with you, but it is what it is.”
Representatives of the Texas Department of State Health Services and the office of Texas Governor Greg Abbott didn’t return requests for comment.
— With assistance by Susan Warren
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