DETROIT (WXYZ) — The last time metro Detroit shelters braced for this sort of volume was two years during the the polar vortex, and now they're faced with an added dilemma: getting as many people inside as they can while maintaining social distancing during a global pandemic.
“In the past, we didn’t care because we could put people right next to each other," said Dr. Chad Audi, president and CEO of Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries.
"This year, we expect it to be a little bit harder because of COVID," he told 7 Action News.
Dr. Audi remembers making room for an extra 60 people the last time metro Detroit was hit with bitter temps and wind chills like we're expecting this week. This time around, they're hoping space for an extra 35 at their Highland Park location will be enough.
“What we’re most worried about in our patients is cold exposure causing hypothermia," said Chief of Emergency Medicine at Sinai-Grace Dr. Daniel Taylor.
"It can happen in a matter of minutes actually if they’re not properly equipped," Dr. Taylor said. It's a concern greatest for metro Detroit's homeless population, often with pre-existing health conditions and without proper winter arctic to face subzero wind chills like we're seeing now.
“One of the difficult things people don’t think about it just transporting folks to the shelter, keeping them six feet apart in the van," explained Faith Fowler, executive director at Cass Community Social Services.
"Until last week, we were having to transport them all the way Pontiac to rapid test them before bringing them into the shelter, which involved 5, 6, 7 trips a night," she told 7 Action News.
Cass Community Social Services, which usually houses 150 people nightly across its three emergency programs, expects that number could rise up to 250 this week. Thankfully, they now have rapid tests on site.
Fowler said they're sleeping people head-to-foot to social distance as much as possible.
“We don’t have a capacity limit when the weather is so cold. It’s life threatening cold," Fowler said. She noted that overall Detroit's response to people living on the streets during inclement weather has improved over the years, and she has seen fewer cases of exposure related-injuries and death.
Wayne County has warned it will have fewer warming shelters available due to COVID-19 restrictions and staffing.
Dr. Audi said he and his team are working with the City of Detroit to make sure a quarantine site is ready in case any of their clients exhibit symptoms.
“We don’t want to hear that someone is dead on the street. We don’t want to hear that someone has frostbite and we have to take them to the hospital," he said.
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