Unhoused people recently began staying at the Motel 6 quarantine and isolation site in east Vancouver as Clark County Public Health began rolling out a process to test homeless people for COVID-19.
The Motel 6 off Mill Plain Boulevard is not full, but the number of people staying there grows each day, said Michael Torres, director for the site and program manager at Clark County Community Services.
One person at the motel has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, while others are quarantined because they were in contact with someone who had it, he said.
One building at the motel is set aside to house people who stay in a congregate shelter setting but need to live separately due to their age or underlying medical conditions. So far, the county received referrals from homeless service providers Share and Community Services Northwest, medical service providers and the Clark County Jail. A few people went to the motel to quarantine, tested negative for the virus and left.
Southwest Washington Accountable Community of Health is connecting with some people staying at the motel, providing someone with expertise for conversation and resource referrals. The county also hired security personnel to provide basic site control.
The motel and its associated costs are paid for through June 30 by $1.1 million from the Washington State Department of Commerce.
“We’re fully expended with the COVID-19 emergency housing grant from Commerce,” Torres said.
Contracts include $608,880 to lease the entire 118-room motel; $221,200 for Meals on Wheels People to provide twice-daily meals and snacks to people staying there; up to $250,000 for Servpro to clean the rooms; $45,000 for Council for the Homeless’ referral services and $26,800 for American Medical Transportation to transport people to the motel.
“Anything beyond June 30, we will need more funding,” Torres said.
Public Health is working with Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency to explore what other resources are available. Torres said it’s not just a matter of finding a place and opening rooms; there are a lot of moving pieces involved in establishing a quarantine and isolation site for people who are homeless.
One of those moving pieces is testing people for the virus. Lianne Martinez, Public Health’s emergency preparedness and response coordinator, said the county last week launched a process to test people who are homeless and may be uninsured. Only a few homeless people have been tested this way so far.
“We’ll have to work out the kinks as it goes,” Martinez said.
If Council for the Homeless or other homeless service providers identify someone who is symptomatic, they will call Public Health. (Martinez said Public Health provided guidance to organizations on how to identify someone who may have the virus.) After Public Health gathers information, the individual is transported to the Vancouver Clinic’s Columbia Tech Center location. There, the clinic conducts a simple nasal swab test. Depending on the results, the person being tested could be sent to Motel 6 for quarantine or isolation.
If they test negative but continue showing symptoms, they could be retested later. If the individual has private health insurance or Medicaid, that would be billed. Otherwise, the county can be reimbursed for the cost of testing through the federal COVID-19 Uninsured Program.
Preventing the spread of COVID-19 in a homeless shelter or encampment was a prime motivation for setting up a means to test people.
“That’s always a possibility, and that’s why we’re trying to get this process up and going,” Martinez said. “We run that risk in any congregate setting.”
Testing an entire homeless shelter has not been done, but it’s “not off the table,” she said.
The county also explored the possibility of workers going to where homeless people are staying and testing them there. This is more difficult, Martinez said, because there’s a limited amount of time to get the sample into the testing machine.
Unlike larger jurisdictions such as King County, Clark County does not have its own clinic. Public Health was tasked with figuring out the best way to test its unhoused population, a process that Martinez said involves coordination among multiple groups.