Omicron overwhelms New York’s quarantine hotel system

NEW YORK – For much of the pandemic, one way the city has sought to curb the spread of coronavirus is by offering free hotel rooms to infected people who cannot easily isolate themselves from those they live with.

But the large number of people who are sick with the omicron variant can be overwhelming for the hotel program – both for the general public and another for people in homeless shelters.

Inside a Brooklyn shelter this week, 11 women tested positive for the virus were squeezed into a small room that had only a few mattresses on the floor and several chairs, two of the women said.

Three people who tried to take advantage of the primary hotel quarantine system said on Thursday that they had either waited days before being given a room, given up and even paid for one, or sat in a waiting position for hours on a city hotline without anyone ever choosing . up. Others have posted messages on Twitter about their own long waits.

“I requested a hotel over 5 days ago and they still have not arranged transportation for me,” wrote one user, @PettierB, Friday morning. When she finally spoke to someone, she wrote, she was told she did not qualify for the program because she no longer needed to be quarantined even though she still had COVID-19 symptoms.

As the number of new virus cases in the city has risen to 130,000 so far this week, from 16,000 during the first week of December, the city unit running the main hotel quarantine program has declined to say whether there was a waiting time for rooms.

The hotel program, which the city calls “the only free, large hotel isolation program in the country,” started in June 2020 with 1,200 rooms. A spokesman for Test and Trace Corps, the unit in the city’s health and hospital agency that runs the program, said Friday that nearly 30,000 people had used the hotels so far.

It was not clear how many rooms are involved in the program now, but the spokesman wrote in an email that demand for hotels had “increased rapidly” as omicron spread and that two more hotels were added this week , with more to follow if needed.

Cathy Guo, 29, a graduate student from New York University who lives with three roommates, said that after two of them tested positive for the virus shortly before Christmas, all four spent many hours waiting in line with the city’s hotline without reaching anyone.

Finally, on Monday – about four days after the other roommate was tested positive, Guo said one of the four was transferred to a line where a recording said there were 150 people in front of her on hold. Three hours later, a dispatcher picked up and said the city would send someone to bring the sick roommate to a hotel.

“They still have not arrived,” Guo said early Friday.

Hotline calls on Friday were answered by a recording asking the caller to leave a message.

Monte Monteleagre, who lives in Manhattan, described another telephone test that yielded a similarly fruitless result.

After testing positive for the virus on December 18 and calling to hear about the hotel program, he was put on hold for more than 90 minutes while being forced to press a button every few minutes to keep his seat on line.

“I missed the prompt once and had to start over from the back of the row,” he said.

When Monteleagre, 26, finally spoke to someone, he was told he would be called back within two days. It took five days before the call came, he said. At that time, he and his roommate had made other arrangements. Violetta Barberis, 47, who said she tested positive for the virus on Dec. 20 and whose husband has a severely compromised immune system, wanted to get a hotel room immediately after learning her result. She said she was told she would have to wait 48 hours.

“We paid out of pocket, which is super annoying, but it had to be done,” said Barberis, who lives in lower Manhattan. “I can imagine that for people who had less financial flexibility, that would be impossible.”

Those seeking refuge from homeless shelters have experienced their own frustrations.

The shelter system has a separate network of hotels from which it rents quarantine rooms. On Wednesday, the city’s homeless services department said there were 400 vacant quarantine and isolation beds available at these hotels.

But at the Broadway House Women’s Crisis Center in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, two women who said they had been tested positive described entering a small room known as the “library” with a total of 11 women in it, some of whom were stayed there for several days. Both women said they had been told there were no available hotel rooms.

Some of the women in the library slept on bare mattresses. One, Anna Ortiz, who has multiple disabilities, was less fortunate.

“They put me on the floor,” she said. “There were only three or four mattresses in the library room”

The floor is without carpet. Ortiz, 51, who has chronic asthma and heart problems and uses a walker, said she was not given a blanket or pillow.

“I felt like I was being treated like an animal,” she said.

Another woman, who said she stayed in the room Tuesday and Wednesday night, posted a video showing four women spreading uncomfortably in hard-backed chairs, one of them with her head down on a desk. The women’s belongings were dipped in garbage bags on the floor.

“It’s appalling the way we as humans – and as taxpayers – have to live,” said the other woman, who is 62, works at UPS and also has chronic asthma. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from shelter workers.

The Department of Homeless Services did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. Deborah Diamant, director of legal affairs for the Coalition for the Homeless, said the agency should have anticipated the increased demand for hotel rooms. The weekly number of new COVID cases in the city’s shelters rose to 281 this week from 36 at the end of November, according to city data.

The agency has previously been under fire for moving thousands of people from temporary hotel stays back to dormitories in the summer despite the continuing threat of infection.

“DHS should have been prepared for this,” Diamant said Thursday. “They were not, and here they are going.” She noted that the city is legally obligated to provide shelter residents a bed with a clean mattress and a lockable place to store their belongings.

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