Not far from the country’s largest airport near Toronto, a Peel Region hotel has been converted into an isolation centre for anyone exposed to COVID-19, including those confirmed to be infected.
Almost anyone is eligible to stay — free of charge — with one big exception. This quarantine facility isn’t for returning travellers.
“We’re hoping to fill the place,” said Leslie Moreau, who runs three other hotel sites in Brampton and Mississauga, now giving the region a total isolation capacity of 373 rooms.
While the federal government ramps up a requirement for inbound travellers to stay at least three days in a hotel, at their own expense, Peel Region has been scaling up its own local isolation operation, opening three hotel sites in just over a month. The fourth started accepting people on Monday.
The area has consistently had one of the country’s highest rates of COVID-19 infections. Public health authorities point to a concentration of health and long-term care workers, as well as communal work settings like e-retailing warehouses and manufacturing, as contributors to the spread of the virus in the community.
Peel also has a significant number of large multigenerational households, where elderly grandparents may live alongside working parents and school-age grandchildren.
“It’s very hard to safely isolate,” said Moreau of Peel’s multigenerational homes, “so if they’re here [at the hotel] in their own room, then it’s safer and we’re going to be able to control the spread.”
Persuading the skeptical to leave home to isolate
Though the region has requested that the exact location of the hotels not be revealed publicly, the four sites are located in East Brampton, South Brampton, North Mississauga and now, South Mississauga.
The cost to rent and staff the hotels is paid for entirely with emergency money from the federal and provincial governments. As a result, guests requiring isolation pay nothing for their stay.
With transportation to the facility available in a specially sealed mini-bus, 24-hour on-site nursing staff, temperature checks, security, and meals delivered right to the door, Peel Region is trying to remove any inconvenience, fear or stigma from the isolation process.
“Racialized Canadians are most impacted by COVID-19. It requires a nuanced approach,” notes nurse Ameek Singh.
“To hear a common language … their anxiety goes way down. It starts not only with us as the health care providers here, but the food that’s offered, the facilities that are offered, and the cultural norms that are understood.”
Families are, for instance, able to drop off food or other supplies should a guest ask for anything. Menu options offer everything from hamburgers to vegetarian biryani, and mild jerk chicken to fish tandoori.
The catch, of course, is the isolation. By checking in, a guest is agreeing to stay inside their room with rare opportunities to go outside, and they can’t mingle with others or see anyone other than staff. Guests are forbidden. Even for those who remain asymptomatic, cable TV and wifi only stave off boredom to a certain degree.
Others who come to an isolation hotel will also be COVID-positive, and could become very ill during their time there. Those who test positive are kept on a separate floor, and nursing staff conduct regular health checks to ensure wellbeing. Anyone needing hospitalization is offered transfer by ambulance.
The keys to the success of the program are twofold — persuading people of the benefits of isolation outside their homes, and timing.
Health authorities want those potentially exposed to COVID-19 to come here immediately, rather than returning home or to a workplace where the risk of transmission jumps.
Having restricted who could access an isolation hotel earlier in the pandemic, the criteria has recently been loosened in the hopes more will use the service. Anyone who learns of a potential exposure through public health, or contacts them directly, is now told of the isolation hotel if they report not having a suitable place to quarantine apart from others.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the past week … getting out to assessment centres,” said Moreau, Peel’s manager of Human Services.
“What we really want is people to come here when they’re looking to book a COVID test, not once they’re already positive. So we would like to get them here sooner rather than later.”
Isolation hotels similar to what incoming travellers will soon face
While guests are strongly encouraged to stay for their entire 14-day quarantine period, this is not an obligation at the Peel Region facility and the other three isolation hotels in the area.
That is not the case at another hotel in Mississauga operated by the Public Health Agency of Canada, which may serve as the model for the mandated isolation period that returning or arriving international travellers could soon face.
On Jan. 28, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that mandatory testing for the coronavirus would soon be required for people returning to Canada, on top ofpre-departure test requirements implemented earlier this year. Travellers will then have to wait up to three days at a government-approved hotel for their results, which Trudeau said must be paid by the traveller and could cost upwards of $2,000.
“It’s not an experience that I would pay to have,” Hyunseo Cho said.
Cho and her husband, JT Stubbs, returned from South Korea in the early months of the pandemic. At the time, they were sharing a home with a pregnant relative and, unable to afford temporary accommodations, asked border officials if there was an alternative. They were transported to a hotel room where they spent 23 hours a day.
Unlike the regional isolation hotel, the young couple was not permitted to leave the hotel unless seeking urgent medical treatment. They were required to remain in their room for 14 days after arrival, with the exception of one hour of walking time each day in the fenced-off parking lot.
“Boredom was my big issue,” Cho recalled.
The couple is now strongly opposed to any international travel, except for emergency reasons.
Their experience — confined by security guards, seeing only cleaning staff passing through the peep-hole in the hotel door — may be indicative of what Canadians returning from abroad will now experience.
Saving lives in hotel isolation
While federal authorities are sending a message of discouragement through their new hotel quarantine urging Canadians to stop travelling abroad, regional officials are sending a very different message.
Peel Region is encouraging those who’ve been exposed to isolate safely with them. And besides the desire to protect their families and community, the care and monitoring people receive at Peel’s isolation hotel may help attract those who have been exposed or infected.
At the regional facility for local residents, nurse Rasheen Oliver is a veteran of isolation hotels. Just before Christmas in one of the hotels, she was caring for a woman whose health was rapidly deteriorating, but the woman’s anxiety about going to hospital was also high.
Oliver called an ambulance and coaxed the woman to leave the hotel. The patient ended up hospitalized for 21 days.
“If she would have stayed in the hotel room … she probably would have died. So she was very grateful. She sent me flowers and a beautiful card saying she would pray for me for the rest of her life.”
Oliver is now working at the newest of the four hotels, part of a team going door-to-door in full personal protective equipment (PPE) to regularly check on residents and respond to their concerns. As she does so, she remembers that one woman.
“It reminds me of why I’m here. The work in itself sometimes can be a little stressful, but it’s rewarding when you have moments like that.”
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