COVID-19 makes shelters job much harder during deadly cold | Michigan Radio
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COVID-19 makes shelters job much harder during deadly cold

Feb 7, 2021

Freezing temperatures and the pandemic make it tough on shelters.
Credit SamPac / creative commons

Groups across Michigan that provide emergency shelter are bracing for a rough two weeks.

Temperatures some nights could plunge to near or below zero, and COVID-19 restrictions will make it even more difficult than usual to keep people safe in life-threatening cold. 

Faith Fowler runs Cass Community Social Services in Detroit, which typically has about 150 people being sheltered overnight.  She says that number can easily double in single digit cold snaps. 

She says during this period of extreme weather, the shelter may need to temporarily dispense with the pandemic six-foot distance rule, as well as set up air mattresses on the floor -- which she says is better than the alternative. 

"Hypothermia, frost bite, losing fingers, toes, ears, noses -- we see that in a regular winter.  So when temperatures drop to an extreme you are really looking at a life and death situation," says Fowler.

Fowler says her group was able to piggy back on an order made by Albion College for fast result COVID-19 tests, so anyone testing positive can be quickly re-routed to a special shelter set up by the city of Detroit.  She says staff will be driving vans through the shelter's territory all night if need be, convincing people to come to the shelter.

In Adrian, "we are bracing ourselves for this more cold weather," says Helen Henricks, President of Share the Warmth of Lenawee, which runs a shelter in the city.

The shelter was already operating at a third its usual capacity because of the pandemic when a resident tested positive for COVID-19.  Now, the shelter is on lockdown, unable to accept any new residents.

The pandemic has created an understaffing problem as well.  Henrick says many of the shelter's volunteers are elderly, some with health conditions that could put them at risk.  So many volunteers had to stop coming to the shelter. 

Henricks says other groups in the area will step up if need be and pay for people to stay in hotel rooms to keep them safe.   Her shelter will make sure those people get transportation to the hotel, as well as meals.

In St. Clair County, daytime warming centers have been shut down due to the pandemic, and the only two permanent overnight shelters are already at capacity.

Mark White is Deputy Director of the St. Clair County Emergency Management department.  He says a temporary warming shelter has been set up at a local firehouse, and people will be allowed to sleep there overnight if no room opens up in the shelters.