New Haven’s solution for homeless individuals who test positive for COVID-19 but do not require hospitalization — a 50-bed self-isolation site at Hill Regional Career High School — is ready to open but not yet required.

Mayor Justin Elicker announced the site on March 18, several days after declaring a state of emergency in the Elm City. While logistics proved relatively simple, staffing challenges have stalled the site’s opening in the weeks since. Such a facility requires medical personnel and security in order to ensure a safe recovery environment for COVID-19 patients. In a Monday memo, the mayor’s office provided updates to its original approach, detailing a staffing plan and security measures. As of Tuesday, staff are on standby and the site is ready to open.  

“[The city is] waiting to have eligible individuals to admit into the process,” New Haven Health Director Maritza Bond said, referring to homeless individuals who test positive for the novel coronavirus but do not meet hospitalization criteria. “Once that occurs, we will activate our shelter.”

Potential patients will be “prescreened to ensure the facility will be able to fit their needs,” according to the memo. Elicker said on Tuesday that the city does not have specific numbers as to how many patients are currently in that pipeline. 

Almost immediately after Elicker announced the city’s plan for these patients, his administration’s approach drew criticism from residents and representatives of the Hill neighborhood. The Hill, a group of former and current government officials and community leaders said, is already home to a disproportionate share of New Haven’s social service providers. While recognizing and sympathizing with these concerns, Elicker moved forward as planned, citing Career’s federal designation as a regional emergency shelter — which allows the city to be partially reimbursed for its expenditures.

The city had 40 beds installed within the first 24 hours following the mayor’s announcement. On March 20 — two days after Elicker initially laid out the city’s plans — Emergency Operations Director Rick Fontana said that Career was “fully, from a logistical standpoint, ready to go.” 

The biggest change announced on Monday is the facility’s capacity: 50 beds rather than a planned 75. Upon inspecting the facility further, city staff determined that 50 is a “more manageable number of people,” Elicker said. 

With beds organized in short order, the city turned its attention to staff. In order to stand up the site, the New Haven needed nurses, support staff, police and on-call doctors.

On March 26, Elicker issued a call for help, asking Elm City residents with medical experience to sign up for the Medical Reserve Corps, a group of volunteers that support mass care settings and other public health activities. By March 27, Connecticut had 235 sign-ups statewide. 

About one week later, New Haven trained its first 19 volunteers on April 2. The group — mostly nurses — would help move the Career site closer to opening, Elicker said in that day’s press conference. Bond said that the volunteers would be tasked with “checking temperatures [and] screening people,” a role she described as “basic medical follow-up and triage.” The city had also arranged for an on-call doctor and behavioral practitioner, she said. The next day, Bond and Fontana certified an additional six trainees. 

These MRC volunteers will staff the site, Bond said on Tuesday. They will have access to on-call, off-site doctors if needed.

In addition to round-the-clock police presence at the only entry point, New Haven Public Schools and New Haven Fire Department security officers will constantly monitor video surveillance footage. While some Hill residents had earlier raised concerns about the site requiring school safety officers, the mayor’s memo reiterated earlier city statements that this is not the case.

The mayor’s office also offered updates on another point of concern: how the facility will be cleaned when the pandemic is over. Fontana had said earlier that New Haven would go above and beyond CDC guidelines; the April 6 memo outlined what that will look like: the NHFD will use vital oxide, a hospital-grade disinfectant, via an atomizing device known as an AeroClave. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, New Haven has 361 confirmed cases and 12 deaths.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu