La Crosse County officials will begin isolating people experiencing homelessness who have been exposed or contracted COVID-19 to the Econo Lodge, after an outbreak and increased capacity strained existing shelter space.
The county Executive Committee approved the move early Wednesday morning unanimously, after an update that a current quarantine shelter space was at capacity and an outbreak had occured at the downtown warming center.
“We think this will be a much more effective way to reduce the spread of COVID among people who are unsheltered, and also to help keep them safer and healthier through the rest of the winter,” said Jane Klekamp, the La Crosse County associate administrator.
The county previously used the Econo Lodge to isolate positive individuals who did not have permanent housing until a contract and its funding lapsed.
In November of last year, the county then entered an agreement with Gundersen Hotel & Suites to use as an isolation space through its hotel voucher program.
But in an update given to the committee, Klekamp said that Gundersen had recently reached capacity, just as an outbreak had occured at the Catholic Charities Warming Center in Downtown La Crosse, and could no longer take in more guests.
“The concern was that everyone in the Warming Center and then everyone in the Salvation Army would become possible positives, that’s how outbreaks tend to work in congregate settings,” said Klekamp.
To mitigate the outbreaks appearing in the county’s community experiencing homelessness, all of the county’s isolation efforts will be moved to the Econo Lodge until April 15. The county has rented 55 of its 65 rooms.
This includes almost all of the current guests in isolation at the Gundersen Hotel, as well as any individuals who have tested positive or were exposed to a positive case.
In addition, all guests from the Warming Center, where the outbreak originated, will be moved to the Econo Lodge, and the downtown space will essentially close.
“The Warming Center downtown will not be functioning through April 15, as it currently is, as a shelter downtown. They will be staffing the Econo Lodge,” Klekamp said.
Renting and staffing the Econo Lodge through mid-April will cost about $300,000, the resolution approving the move states, but it’s expected that cost will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Currently all shelter staff has been given personal protective equipment, which the sheriff’s office helped train them to use, Klekamp said, an indication of cooperation in these efforts.
With the help of local agencies, individuals staying at the county’s current shelter spaces have been tested twice a day since the outbreak has occurred.
And while there was not an indication of exactly how many positive cases resulted from the outbreak, its spread has seemed to slow over the weekend, with “luck and a lot of planning,” Klekamp said.
She said there were no new positives at the Warming Center in recent days, and only one at the Salvation Army shelter, but not from a new exposure.
Officials are hopeful that those without permanent shelter will be eligible to be vaccinated in the next round, which is expected to begin in early March, a light at the end of a worrisome tunnel.
The Executive Committee also approved for the county to help support the additional housing vouchers the community received during the pandemic, at the request of the city.
Because of COVID-19, the federal government allowed communities additional housing vouchers, which help low-income residents acquire housing — but the help from above did not include funds to cover administrative costs.
The county will now split the cost of administrative work toward the vouchers with the city of La Crosse Housing Authority, a bill of $7,763 each.
The community received an additional 40 vouchers.
If the shared-cost were to continue into next year, that funding would be added to the county’s next budget.
"We think this will be a much more effective way to reduce the spread of COVID among people who are unsheltered, and also to help keep them safer and healthier through the rest of the winter."
Jane Klekamp, La Crosse County associate administrator