For much of the pandemic, New York has tried to slow the spread of the coronavirus by offering free hotel rooms to infected people who cannot easily isolate themselves from those they live with.
But the sheer number of people with the Omicron variant challenges hotel programs — both one aimed at the general public and another aimed at people living in homeless shelters.
At a Brooklyn shelter last week, 11 women who had tested positive for the virus were crammed into a small room furnished with just a few mattresses on the floor and several chairs, two of the women said. The city’s homeless services department described the situation as an “isolated incident” caused by the nonprofit that runs the shelter.
Four people who tried to take advantage of the hotel’s main quarantine system said late last week they had either waited days for a room, given up and paid for themselves, or been blocked for hours on a city hotline with no one ever. to pick up. Others to have job posts on twitter about their own long waits.
“I requested a hotel over 5 days ago and they still haven’t arranged transportation for me,” Brittny Gaston from Brooklyn said on Twitter last Friday. Ms Gaston, 26, a medical assistant, said in an interview that when she finally spoke to someone she was told she was not eligible as she no longer needed to quarantine , although she still had symptoms of Covid-19 and two people in her household had underlying health conditions.
“I really wanted to cry on the phone,” Ms Gaston said, adding that when she had Covid last February she was able to get a quarantined hotel room without delay.
As the number of new virus cases in the city skyrocketed to more than 250,000 last week from 16,000 in the first week of December, a spokesperson for the city agency that runs the program said that demand for hotels had “rapidly increased due to the rapidly transmissible Omicron variant.
Yet as of Monday, the quarantine program had “several hundred beds available” and was admitting hundreds of new guests every day, said spokesman Adam Shrier of the City Test and Trace Corps. He said the program “doubled our hotel capacity this week,” but declined to say if there was a wait for rooms, citing the agency’s policy of not “disclosing information about our locations or our customers to protect their confidentiality and privacy”.
The hotel program, which the city calls “the only free and major hotel isolation program in the country,” began in June 2020 with 1,200 rooms. Nearly 30,000 New Yorkers have stayed in the rooms during the program, Shrier said.
Cathy Guo, 29, a New York University graduate student who lives with three roommates, said after two of them tested positive for the virus shortly before Christmas, all four spent many hours each on hold with the city hotline without reaching anyone.
Finally, Ms Guo said, last Monday – about four days after the second housemate tested positive – one of the four was moved to a line where a recording showed there were 150 people ahead of her waiting. Three hours later, a dispatcher picked up and said the city would send someone to get the sick roommate to a hotel.
“They still haven’t come,” Ms. Guo said last Friday.
Calls to the hotline on Monday were answered by a recording asking callers to leave a message.
Monte Monteleagre, 26, who lives in Manhattan, said after he tested positive on Dec. 18 and called to inquire about the hotel’s schedule, he was put on hold for more than 90 minutes while being forced to press a button every few minutes to keep his place on the line.
“I missed the prompt once and had to start over from the back of the line,” he said.
When Mr. Monteleagre finally spoke to someone, he was told he would be called back within two days. It took five days for the call to come in, he said. By then, he and his roommate had made other arrangements.
Violetta Barberis, 47, who said she tested positive for the virus on December 20 and whose husband has a severely weakened immune system, wanted to get a hotel room immediately. She said she was told she would have to wait 48 hours.
“We paid out of pocket, which is super annoying but had to be done,” said Ms Barberis, who lives in Lower Manhattan. “I can imagine for people who had less financial flexibility, that would be impossible.”
Those who seek refuge in homeless shelters have experienced their own frustrations.
The shelter system has a separate network of hotels from which it rents quarantine rooms. As of Friday, the system had about 160 vacant beds in isolation units for infected people and another 210 beds in quarantine wards for exposed people, the city said.
But at the Broadway House women’s shelter in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, two women who said they tested positive described being crammed into a small room known as the “library” with a total of 11 women, including some were kept there for several days. Both women said they were told there were no hotel rooms available.
Some of the women in the library slept on bare mattresses. One, Anna Ortiz, who has a disability, was less fortunate.
“They knocked me down,” she said. “There were only three or four mattresses in the library room.”
The floor is without carpet. Ms Ortiz, 51, who has chronic asthma and heart problems and uses a walker, said she was not given a blanket or pillow.
“I felt like I was treated like an animal,” she said.
Another woman, who said she stayed in the room on Tuesday and Wednesday night, sent a video showing four women sprawled uncomfortably on hard-backed chairs, one of them with her head bowed on a desk. The women’s belongings were piled up in garbage bags on the floor.
“It’s appalling the way we have to live as human beings – and as taxpayers,” said the second woman, who is 62, works at UPS and also suffers from chronic asthma. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from shelter workers.
Isaac McGinn, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services, said staff at the nonprofit organization that runs the shelter, Camba, did not follow proper procedure and that the city had ” communicated to providers and staff the appropriate process for connecting clients who need to isolation services to prevent this from happening. He pointed out that the system had isolation beds.
A Camba official referred questions to the Department of Homeless Services on Monday.
Deborah Diamant, director of legal affairs for the Coalition for the Homeless, said the homeless services department should have anticipated the increased demand for hotel rooms. The weekly number of new Covid-19 cases in city shelters rose to 281 last week from 36 at the end of November, according to city data.
The agency had previously been criticized for moving thousands of people from temporary hotel accommodation to dormitory-style shelters in the summer.
“DHS should have been prepared for this,” Ms. Diamant said Thursday. “They weren’t and here they are scrambling.”
Ms Ortiz and the second woman who was forced to stay at the library both said they were moved to a hotel in Queens on Thursday where each has a roommate. Ms. Ortiz said she was disgusted with the way the city treated them.
“I would never do that to my worst enemy,” she said.