Washoe County looks to deactivate vacant COVID-19 response trailer site, other non-congregant shelters deemed sufficient for pandemic

For community members who cannot safely self isolate, Washoe County and the cities of Reno and Sparks deployed as many as 60 trailers to enable those with COVID-19 diagnosis or symptoms to find a safe haven - photo: Brian Bahouth/The Sierra Nevada Ally

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed down the country, the city of Reno, Sparks and Washoe County came together to meet the emerging needs of the community. In order to generate more self-isolation and quarantine options for COVID-19-positive individuals who lack the ability to safely self-isolate, a temporary trailer park was set up in what’s known as the Edison Complex. 

“The idea of isolation and quarantine is that we’re going to give you a safe place of refuge, but in return you can’t leave for 10-14 days so that you don’t spread the disease,” Dr. Aaron Kenneston, Washoe County Emergency Manager said. “So that non-congregate medical shelter is an idea that FEMA and the Center for Disease Control began discussing with states back in late February, early March.”

Although Incident Management teams such as the one at Washoe County are used to quickly produce shelters during an emergency, the idea of having non-congregate shelters, where people are housed individually, is unique to what emergency teams are used to when responding to a crisis. 

“So often here in our region we have disasters that are of a very short duration and very geographically-centered, like a wildland fire,” Kenneston said. “What’s so unusual about [the COVID-19 pandemic] is it’s a long-term event and congregate sheltering is the exact opposite of what people need.”

Congregate shelters often take the shape of high school gymnasiums or a convention center, where cots are provided on an open floor to support people affected or displaced by a given emergency. But due to the need for people to be isolated to stop the spread of COVID-19, non-congregate measures needed to be created quickly. 

“The idea of a non-congregate medical shelter is to provide a safe refuge for citizens to either isolate or quarantine,” Kenneston said. “In both cases, we’re talking about restricting people’s movement, which of course, is a touchy subject in our country, as it should be.”

Before they could generate non-congregate medical shelters, the Incident Management team at Washoe County, along with the Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other state and federal officials first came up with several Alternate Care Sites (ACS) to respond to the crisis.

One measure included setting up 700 hospital beds in a Renown Hospital parking garage, with the possibility of expanding another 700 beds on the second floor of the garage, for a total of 1,400 additional beds. The overflow facility has not been used.

Another measure was to convert the Reno-Sparks Convention Center as an Alternate Care Site. 

“The plan was to [also] convert the Convention Center as an alternate care site for this expected surge,” Kenneston said. “Then the question becomes, ‘Okay, once somebody is discharged from the hospital or the alternate care site and they still are presumed COVID-positive and don’t have a place to go, what can the local government do to help them?’ So to that end, there were three non-congregate medical sites set up.” 

The first non-congregate medical shelter was established via a contract with WellCare, a medical facility on Mill St. in Reno that can provide 24/7 medical monitoring. 

“[WellCare] has capability for around-the-clock blood pressure and temperature checks and can provide some medicines, as well as what’s referred to as wrap-around services,” Kenneston said. “[This includes] everything from behavioral and mental health services and substance abuse assistance, to minor medical problems. So WellCare was established with 43 beds for [COVID-19 positive patients].”

A second non-congregate medical shelter was created for first-responders of the crisis that were exposed to the virus.

“We wanted to be very careful that we didn’t have fire, law or proxy medical services that were COVID-positive, moving around the community and could be spreading the disease,” Kenneston said. “So a second site was set up at a local hotel-motel with another 24 beds, in case we started getting a surge of first-responders.”

These plans, however, were created at a time when there was a deep concern that a surge in COVID cases would be too large for the bed-capacity being provided. The whole country was watching as temporary hospitals were being erected at Central Park in New York City, the epicenter of the global pandemic at that time.

“All around the country, these big cities were converting warehouses [into temporary shelters and hospitals],” Kenneston said. “There was a very real fear that we would be overwhelmed with people with these positive cases.”

According to Kenneston, experts from the CDC, Corps of Engineers and FEMA predicted as much as 2.5 percent of the population would require [non-congregate] sheltering. In the Washoe County region, that means upwards of 10,000 people could be cycling through these temporary shelters at 14-day intervals. It was then that the Incident Management team looked for additional options.

“We presumed that there was this giant surge and we would have people that could not go isolate or quarantine at their house,” Kenneston said. “Maybe they had somebody that was medically frail at their home or somebody in a vulnerable population that could not isolate or quarantine at home for fear of causing serious harm to family or loved ones. That’s where the idea of the non-congregate medical sheltering at the Edison Complex came in.”

The team soon discovered a supply of trailers at the Alamo truck stop in Sparks, as well as others along the USA Parkway. County officials learned that the trailers were owned by an emergency support services company called ATCO. 

“One of the things [ATCO does] is rent these trailers,” Kenneston said. “They were last at the Paradise fire with rehab workers and fire services people living in these trailers as they were completing the Paradise fire disaster.”

Seeing the trailers as a local solution, it was arranged for 60 trailers, with a total capacity of 300 rooms, to be leased as non-congregate shelters to handle the expected surge. The trailers were then moved to land owned by Washoe County through the Truckee River Flood Management Authority, a separate FEMA initiative.

“In that North Edison area, we have businesses that were repeatedly flooded over the years because of river flooding,” Kenneston said. “FEMA helped us acquire that property, raize the buildings and move the buildings that were in the flood zone. So we have this big open space that was ideal to set up these trailers.”

Crews from NV Energy and the Truckee Meadows Water Authority are working to establish services to a small village of trailers intended to house those with COVID-19 symptoms or diagnosis who cannot self isolate – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Then the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, NV Energy and other utility companies were hired to pipe in power, water and sewer for the trailers. The utilities for the trailers were equipped above ground, however, as the trailers were only originally leased through the middle of September because they were seen as a temporary measure in response to the crisis. If the lease for the trailers continued into the fall and winter, the utilities would have had to be placed below-ground to prevent them from freezing. 

The trailers, however, have been vacant thus far in the pandemic. Officials soon realized that they were not going to be needed as originally anticipated.

“No doubt with the beauty of 20/20 hindsight, we look back on [the trailers] and realize, ‘Oh, we made it through the surge and at our high watermark, we were only about 50 percent full at WellCare and the motel for first-responders,’” Kenneston said. “We never did use the floor and parking garage at Renown. We came close, but even at our high watermark, we never had this big surge of people that were seeking non-congregate medical sheltering.”

This is not an unusual occurrence in emergency response, however, as in Kenneston’s experience he believes if people have other emergency shelter options aside from those provided by the government, people will take the other option.

“For the COVID emergency, it appears people have found other ways to isolate and quarantine,” Kenneston said. “In some cases, maybe they had mother-in-law quarters or something that they’ve been renting out as an AirBnB and they have just stayed there and away from their family. Other people may have just quarantined in their basement. People just found other arrangements and because we haven’t had this giant surge, we have not ended up placing people thus far in the Edison non-congregate medical sheltering.” 

Therefore, a meeting is expected to take place this week that will determine how much longer the trailers at the Edison Complex will remain there. 

“If we were able to make it through the first surge, then we don’t have any evidence that we would really need that facility during a second surge,” Kenneston said. “Now as more motels are re-opening, we’re more along the thought process that we could rent hotel-motel rooms to do some medical sheltering, rather than the Edison Complex.”

Consequently, it can be expected that the trailers at Edison Complex will be dismantled before the expiration of the lease in mid-September. In addition to the required ‘winterization’ of the trailers if the lease were to continue, additional funds would be needed to prepare the flood-prone property it’s currently sitting on.

Deactivating the trailers and shortening their lease are part of being fiscally-responsible with tax-payer dollars, according to Kenneston.

“Even though these are all federally funded initiatives that we’re working on, we want to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Kenneston said. “So that’s why we’re looking very seriously at deactivating it now and not extending leases or winterizing [the trailers]. We have other insurance policies that will work equally as well.”

One of 60 trailers meant to accommodate those with COVID-19 symptoms or diagnosis and cannot self isolate – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Sierra Nevada Ally

In the meantime, the trailers at the Edison Complex are now considered a “warm site,” which means that although it is not currently in use, it is still available on a short notice. 

Additionally, the ACS at the Convention Center was dismantled and put away in storage a month ago, with hopes that it can reopen and begin hosting events under Phase Three of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Silver State Stabilization Plan. The Convention Center will, however, also remain as a “warm site” in the case another surge affects the region. 

Meanwhile, the ACS at the Renown parking garage will remain in place through the duration of the next flu season. In terms of non-congregate medical shelters, WellCare and the motel for first-responders are anticipated to be enough to handle any future surges in COVID-19.

“Right now WellCare and the motel option is the primary resource [for non-congregate medical housing] and we think that will probably continue to be the best option, even with a surge,” Kenneston said. “We anticipate that we have enough hotel rooms with tourism not being at such a high level right now. We’re not going to see our usual festival season where rooms are booked at 90 percent and those kinds of things. So we think that’ll be plenty of capacity [for future surges].”

In terms of the cost for the temporary leasing and equipping of the trailers, the cost will be fully reimbursed by the federal government. A total cost estimate is not yet available.

“[The trailers] were built upon the advice of the federal authorities and it is supported by federal funding,” Kenneston said. “So we have a cost-share agreement in place to fund all of our responses to COVID through the CARES Act, FEMA funding and CDC funding, so it’s not a burden to the local taxpayer.”

As it stands today, the trailers at the Edison Complex were an insurance policy that, gratefully, never had to be utilized.

“Had we seen the 10,000 people needing this non-congregate medical shelter, it would have been a God-send,” Kenneston said. “But the further we go into this long-term crisis, as we’re about 120 days now into this declared emergency, the more it’s becoming obvious that our region does not look like we’re ever going to get that level of need. [The trailers were] a great insurance policy, but it looks like it’s one that we’re not going to use and I am very thankful for that.”


Scott King is a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, pursuing his Master’s degree in Media Innovation. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Scott recently returned from Grenada, where he served for two years as a literacy teacher with the Peace Corps. Support his work in the Ally.