The City of New London, alongside multiple community partners, launched its first COVID-19 isolation site Monday afternoon.
"We needed something immediately, we acted and we got it done," said Chief Tom Curcio of the New London Fire Department. Curcio is also the city's emergency management director.
The isolation center is designed to help people who have to self isolate because they are showing symptoms of COVID-19 or because they have tested positive for COVID-19, but have nowhere to go.
"We have to provide spaces so that we keep down the community transmission," explained Mayor Michael Passero.
Passero and Curcio both acknowledged that New London is a regional hub for people in need of various social services.
The New London Homeless Hospitality Center is full almost every night, according to its director. There are also shelters for victims of domestic violence in the city and various group homes. If someone in one of the congregate living facilities tests positive, the virus would be able to spread through the large group easier.
"We have to prepare to separate them. They do not have the ability to do it like the larger community that can just retreat to our homes," said Passero.
Curcio said that his emergency management team, consisting of fire department leaders Vernon Skau and Jeffrey Rheaume, spent several weeks working to secure a building to serve as an isolation site in the city. The team identified a vacant nursing home on Viets Street in the city as a possibility and learned that they would be able to use the space this past Friday. Just three days later, the isolation center is fully operational.
Passero said that the nursing home is currently under contract to be sold, but the owner and buyer are allowing the city to lease the building temporarily. The city will pay for the lease up front, but they are hoping that they will be reimbursed through the emergency declaration.
"The public health came first," said Passero.
Rep. Joe De La Cruz (D-New London, Groton), brought in volunteers over the weekend to clean the site and help get it ready. Workers from the city and the New London Homeless Hospitality Center also worked around the clock, moving furniture.
The nursing home, the old Harbor Village facility, had been mostly untouched for more than a year and needed only minor work. The biggest project was addressing plumbing issues and fixing several broken pipes.
"This was perfect for our needs," said Curcio.
The New London Homeless Hospitality Center is paying for the site to be staffed 24/7. They are also providing furniture for each room and hiring a nurse from the Visiting Nurses Association.
Every patient will receive a private room and bathroom. Meals are left on tables outside of the patient's room to limit contact.
"We can really, at this site, give people the space to isolate, access to food and the services that they need," said Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center.
Zall said that the team at the center's homeless shelter has already taken steps to distance beds and decompress the space. They will now start checking everyone's temperatures. If a person has a temperature or shows symptoms of COVID-19, they will be turned away from the shelter and sent to the city's isolation site.
"I don't want people experiencing homelessness to be part of spreading this pandemic more quickly than it needs to," said Zall.
Patients can also be referred through the health district and the hospital. Curcio said that the city is working in partnership with both entities. The site is not just for people experiencing homelessness, explains Zall and Curcio.
Zall said, for example, if someone is discharged from the hospital and told to self-isolate, but they were living on a friends' couch or in a group home and can't return, they can self isolate at the city's site.
"That is also going to help free-up hospital space for other people who need it," said Zall.
Additionally, Curcio said that if someone does not want to self isolate at home because they live with too many people, the site can be an option. The person just has to voice their need to whomever told them that they need to self-isolate.
"This is a perfect area for that so they do not expose a large group," said Curcio.
The center can hold about 70 to 80 patients, according to Curcio. There are also large conference rooms that they can use, spacing patients out, if needed.
Curcio added that if Lawrence and Memorial Hospital needs more overflow space for patients, who still need in-person treatment, they are able to use a wing of the city's site.
According to a spokesperson for L&M, the hospital is investigating all options for overflow space including more unconventional spaces. According to the spokesperson, the hospital's first choice is expanding in its conventional patient care areas and then going from there as necessary.
If the city's isolation site fills to capacity, Curcio said that his team is also reaching out to area colleges for back-up space.
"None of us know how bad this is going to get," said Curcio.
"We do not know how many people will show up here. We are just trying to be prepared and hopefully we will look back and say, 'hey, we had more space than we needed,' but the whole point is you have to prepare," said Zall.
The mayor, emergency management team and the team at the homeless hospitality center all stressed the importance of community partnerships.
"There is a benefit to having a great relationship with your community partners," said Passero. "When people had to move quickly, we already had the relationships in place to be able to get it done quickly."