Inside the COVID Hotel

Word on the Street Issue 15, October 2021

By Erin Sheridan

(Names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of the guests we serve.)

In late September, I walk into a hotel room in Boise, where a man in his 60’s is gasping for breath, shaking uncontrollably on the bed. I place a pulse oximeter on his hand as a colleague calls 911. 

Cooper can barely sit up, but he thanks us for our help with the remaining air in his lungs. We talk to him as sirens approach outside. My pulse oximeter gives a final reading: the oxygen percentage in his blood is in the 60s. I search the room for an inhaler. 

Despite the situation’s urgency, Cooper is worried about his truck in the parking lot. He doesn’t want it to get towed. As EMS pulls him out on a stretcher, I wonder if there will be space at the hospital. He asks to be taken to the VA, but a voice over the radio says they’ll have to divert.

Cooper takes his last breath in the hospital as October arrives. His death is the third from COVID-19 among guests who have sheltered at the hotel for unhoused, COVID-positive residents operated by Interfaith Sanctuary in partnership with the City of Boise. Four guests have passed from the virus since infections surged in August. Each death is a loss for our entire community.

In Idaho, the ugly reality is that officials have failed to take appropriate steps to curb the spread of COVID-19 and its dangerous variants across the state.

Our small nonprofit organization, the only low-barrier shelter in Boise, took on the responsibility to care for anyone unhoused in Ada County who tests positive. We staffed a floor of the hotel using FEMA funding, aiming to prevent community transmission by giving people a place to recover. The program has been largely successful. But unvaccinated guests started getting sick quickly.

Under 53% of Idaho’s population 12+ is fully vaccinated, with some counties this month reporting rates between 30 and 40%. False information has circulated unchecked and as ICUs across the state buckle at 90% capacity, nearly every patient hospitalized is unvaccinated. In our community, where people have frequently experienced trauma, building trust can be challenging. Vaccination rates are improving, but the surge happened too quickly to convince everyone to protect themselves.

For two weeks this fall, the shelter stretched itself thin to care for 33 COVID-positive guests. People continue to arrive from the streets, cars, shelters, and overburdened hospitals across the Treasure Valley. Some of the people we serve are medically fragile to begin with. Others struggle with mental health and addiction. 

Every so often, a person is sent to the hotel with an active COVID-19 infection in a state requiring home health, a level of care an emergency homeless shelter cannot provide. Our staff try their best anyway. This month, I watched case managers work to get a man into assisted living who had been released from a hospital, unable to take care of himself, four different times.

At dinner one night, a man collapsed into my arms. A hospital had released him to us, sick with COVID-19 after having a stroke. I asked him about his family as he laid on the floor waiting for an ambulance.

“Do you have kids?”

“Two sons, out of state, both in their twenties.”

“Do you have a partner?”

“She doesn’t talk to me anymore.”

As EMS wheeled him away, I felt relieved. He would get the level of care he needed, at least for the moment.

I spend a week at the hotel.

Each day I run the hallways, grabbing items for guests, serving meals, knocking on doors and checking on the most fragile every hour. Program managers don’t sleep. Other staff help manage crises. The rest clear grocery store shelves, delivering pallets of water and sports drinks, snacks, and supplies, hauling them upstairs to a makeshift pantry.

The community sends boxes of donations and shares words of support online. We help guests get in touch with family members, sometimes for the first time in months or years. The work keeps us moving. Ultimately, the guests themselves remind us to be grateful. 

Some know each other and pass on words of support to their friends. One woman, unhappy to be in quarantine, cries when a colleague brings her homemade soup. “Matt’s soup is a miracle. I haven’t been able to eat all week.”

She gives me a middle finger to check her blood oxygen level, poking fun at her attitude. “I’m a Jersey girl. This is my best one,” she laughs.

A woman in her twenties opens the door for lunch. Her eyes light up. “I got an apartment,” she tells us, elated. “I just got notified.”

Down the hall, a man expresses thanks as a colleague tells him the shelter has been able to contact his parole officer, who didn’t believe he was sick with COVID-19. Now, he can rest.

A masked woman peers through a cracked door. “You’re taking great care of us,” she says, keeping her distance. “Really. Keep it up and thank you.”