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Hurricane shelters for pandemic era get a light test

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of August 6, 2020)

Even during a typical hurricane season, a county-operated emergency shelter is generally an absolute last resort. But now with COVID-19 in the mix, everyone who can hunker down elsewhere obviously should.

Hurricane Isaias caught some people off guard, so special medical needs, economic hardship or lack of transportation left some families with few options. Three shelters opened for the weekend in Indian River County, with safeguards upon entry, and people given plenty of space to spread out in each facility.

Nineteen residents and two caregivers utilized the special needs shelter. Zero residents went to the pet friendly shelter. Sixteen residents turned up at the general population shelter.

The county’s $44,000 automated no-touch thermometer system had not been delivered yet, so school district personnel staffing the shelters took everyone’s temperature with hand-held no-touch thermometers.

“I am not aware of any issues related to checking temperatures of those people who arrived at the shelters. I am sure the small number of people who actually utilized the shelters this weekend helped on that front,” said county spokesman Brian Sullivan.

“In the event of a stronger storm that causes the shelters to become more populated, the no-contact thermometers ordered by the county will be very beneficial in alleviating potential issues and preventing a back-up in the shelter check-in process.”

There is no timeline for installing the new system, Sullivan said.

The county opens its shelters in phases, based upon the severity of the approaching storm and how many people are under evacuation orders. If a major storm is brewing and most of the 15 shelters need to open to adequately distance people, the free-standing thermometer systems could help the county strategically use personnel, according to officials.

“You don’t understand the controlled chaos that occurs at a shelter especially with very limited manpower,” Indian River County Emergency Services Director Chief Tad Stone said, explaining the value of the system in a high-traffic situation.

“The scanner has a voice prompt,” Stone added. “The temperature check and the mask requirement are done by the scanner as part of the entry process into the shelter. Only if the person trips the requirements preset in the scanner will they have to see someone for further evaluation.

“If they have a temperature, they will be sent to the isolation section of the shelter. Every time someone enters the shelter, they will be scanned for temps and mask requirements even if they are already registered at the shelter.”

Sullivan said if the power goes out, “hurricane shelters have sufficient emergency power to ensure continued use of the thermometers.”

After the system opens the door, can one family member simply hold the door open to let their whole group inside without each person being scanned?

“In order to ensure the safety and security of all shelter residents and staff, the county takes all reasonable and necessary precautions to prevent anyone from ‘sneaking’ into shelters for any reason,” Sullivan said. “This includes having staff monitor entrances and exits to ensure no one is bypassing the shelter registration requirements.”

Even with all these precautions, a public storm shelter is not the place you want to end up. Only the most basic supplies are provided. People arriving at shelters must bring their own bedding, chairs, medicines, food and supplies.

People isolating due to COVID-19 had separate accommodations available to them during Isaias.

“The state arranged a designated COVID-19 shelter for Isaias which was located at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Vero Beach,” Sullivan said. “However, no one ended up utilizing the hotel/shelter this weekend and it was closed down yesterday around the same time the county’s shelters began closing. I am unsure whether this specific hotel will remain the designated COVID-19 shelter for other tropical threats during this year’s hurricane season.”

Long-time Floridians may automatically think of American Red Cross when they think of hurricane shelters. But Indian River County’s shelters are operated jointly by the county’s Emergency Services District and the School District of Indian River County.

The American Red Cross does provide support at three shelters in Indian River County, with coordination of the group’s Treasure Coast operations coming out of its Palm Beach County office, as the Vero Beach office has been closed to the public since March.

If someone still needs housing, clothes, food or other assistance more than 72 hours after a storm, the Red Cross steps in to provide short-term recovery relief through assigned case workers.

Though Hurricane Isaias was Indian River County’s first shelter experiment in the age of COVID-19, the American Red Cross has some lessons learned from non-hurricane emergencies in Florida to develop training for their staff and volunteers, who respond to everything from house fires to floods to tropical events.

“Hurricane Isaias is our fourth disaster this year,” said Grace Meinhofer, Red Cross spokesperson for the region that includes the Treasure Coast. Red Cross teams have already responded to flooding in South Florida and to wildfires in the Everglades and Hobe Sound in May, using COVID-19 training that team members completed virtually. Teams keep in touch and exchange best practices via online meetings while operating in the hottest of COVID-19 hot zones.

Meinhofer said her Red Cross volunteer squad has not been drastically affected in terms of numbers. “We encourage our volunteers to decide for themselves what role they are comfortable in. We are not encouraging them to go to serve at the shelters if they are in the age group that is high risk.”

Having resources in every county, Meinhofer said the Red Cross can call in teams of shelter volunteers and case workers from other parts of Florida if needed to handle any disaster on the Treasure Coast.

For evacuation route and shelter information, as well as details on how to apply to a special needs shelter, go to