Washoe County to provide alternative housing for those with COVID-19 symptoms or diagnosis and cannot self-isolate, the homeless

This man, who did not wish to be identified, was uncertain if he would spend the night in the Downtown Reno Events Center on April 1, 2020 - image - Brian Bahouth/The Sierra Nevada Ally

In order to maintain safe social distancing among Reno’s homeless population, the city’s primary men’s and women’s shelters moved to the Downtown Reno Events Center to more safely house 400 individuals.

But if a person develops COVID-19 symptoms in the Events Center or while living on the street, they could potentially infect many others for the lack of ability to safely self-isolate at home.

Julia Ratti is a Nevada state senator who represents District 13 in Sparks and is also an employee of the Washoe County Health District. Ratti is in charge of the county’s efforts to address novel coronavirus concerns among the region’s homeless population.

During an online press conference on April 1, Ratti announced a plan to enable those without a home and COVID-19 symptoms or diagnosis to safely self-isolate.

“Alternative housing is an important strategy to assist our friends and neighbors who have COVID-19 symptoms or who have received positive COVID-19 test results and who, for many reasons, cannot safely isolate at home,” Ratti said.

A small number of individuals have been placed in alternative housing to date, but Ratti added that officials anticipate an increasing need for this type of housing.

“The individuals that we will be housing will have COVID-19 symptoms or will be COVID-19 positive and will not have options for safely isolating at home. Many will be awaiting test results. Referrals will come from hospitals, the Health District, area nonprofits and through the COVID-19 Call Center.”

Ratti described two types of housing, alternative and supportive. For alternative housing, the county is actively retrofitting mobile homes to accommodate the sick and homeless.

“They include individual units which include a bed, a bathroom, and a shower. We expect to have 35 to 40 beds available to us soon,” Ratti said. “At full build out, we would be able to house about 300 people.”

Supportive housing offers self-isolation and treatment assistance to those who cannot live independently.

“We also have access to 43 beds in 20 units of supportive housing. This contract includes three meals per day and support from a case manager and an advanced practice registered nurse. These units are reserved for individuals who need support to safely isolate.”

The Washoe County Human Services Agency will determine placement in alternative or supportive housing. The vetting process starts when someone exhibits COVID-19 symptoms. If an individual goes to a hospital emergency room or clinic, the referral to the Human Services Agency begins there.

“In the Reno Events Center, the staff is screening every individual who comes into the Reno Event Center, and they are checking their temperature and they’re asking them for symptoms,” Ratti explained. “If they have symptoms, then they are escorted over to the existing Record Street Shelter.

“In that shelter is where you can find those individual rooms with a bathroom and a bed, and they are housed there until the morning when the Community Health Alliance team comes in and screens them.

“If the Community Health Alliance team, which is medical professionals, believes that they are COVID-19-at risk, then we pull them out and get them housing and we also get them lined up for testing at that point.”

To further assist homeless people from contracting or spreading the novel coronavirus, 18 Sani-Hut portable restrooms with hand sanitizer have been placed in a variety of areas around Washoe County. The Downtown Reno Events Center and Downtown ambassadors are distributing bottled water.

For the Washoe County Department of Health and the many organizations working in the region to support the homeless population, there is a distinct concern that COVID-19 will rapidly spread among people housed in the Events Center. Ratti said the unequivocal goal is to flatten the curve and the spread of COVID-19.

“Our goal is to reduce the number of individuals who are exposed to COVID-19 by rapidly housing individuals who cannot safely isolate.”