Four medical student volunteers raised concerns this week with New Orleans city officials about health and safety issues — including lack of coronavirus infection prevention and treatment for serious existing medical conditions — at the hotel where the city and state recently put up nearly 200 homeless residents.
City workers picked up 190 homeless residents from nearby outdoor encampments last month and took them to the Hilton Garden Inn on Gravier Street in order to get them indoors and away from an unusual swarm of rats caused by the coronavirus crisis and subsequent business closures.
Two of the volunteers said that while there were issues, they believed people were doing the best they could considering the unprecedented and unfolding coronavirus crisis. City officials told The Lens that they are already taking steps to address those concerns, including moving half the population to a new hotel to reduce density.
The facility opened nearly two weeks ago on March 26. The volunteers sent emails this week to Meredith McInturff, emergency preparedness lead for the New Orleans Health Department. In those emails, and in follow up interviews with two of the volunteers, they described a lack of protocol for preventing the spread of the coronavirus within the hotel.
“From the moment I entered, it was clear that even the most basic infection prevention precautions that grocery stores across town have managed to successfully implement for weeks were not being enforced for residents, volunteers, nor staff,” wrote volunteer and fourth year medical student Alex Nic. He later published the entirety of his email in a Medium post. “This appears to be much more about the management and control of a population considered by the State to be surplus and expendable, rather than the preservation of the health and safety of some of the city’s most marginalized and at-risk citizens.”
He said that masks and gloves were rarely worn within the building and that people weren’t being routinely checked for symptoms, asked to wash their hands or offered protection when they walked in (although masks and gloves were available). He also said that when he went around room to room to check temperatures, he was in a group of seven people.
(The Lens observed a security guard sitting near the front entrance of the hotel on Wednesday afternoon. He was wearing a mask.)