‘I came here for a reason’: What it’s like to stay at Austin’s COVID-19 isolation facility

Investigations

AUSTIN (Texas) — The Fourth of July weekend looked very different for one Austin man — spending the holiday inside his room at the City’s isolation facility with COVID-19.

“I turned it into my home because I know that I have to accept the fact that I’m here, and I came here for a reason,” he told KXAN Investigator Avery Travis.

He asked to remain anonymous during his stay at the facility.

Two weeks ago, this viewer began feeling sick. He said his “first thought” was his family, as he lives in a multi-generational household and didn’t want to expose his elderly relatives to the coronavirus, if he had contracted it.

“This is really great because otherwise, I would have had to sleep in my car or on the street or something,” he said. “It was obviously an emotional decision.” 

When he learned about the isolation facility, a hotel in the north east part of the city, being leased by local governments to house people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or who may have been exposed, he called immediately.

As of this week, APH reported 97 people were staying at the facility, and they had served 568 guests in total.

The city was in talks with a another hotel in north Austin to utilize as a second Isolation Facility, but on Monday a city spokesperson told KXAN that location is no longer being considered.

Officials have asked the media not to show these facilities or publicize their addresses.

MORE: Here’s a look inside Austin’s COVID-19 isolation facility

KXAN received a tour of Austin’s first isolation facility last month, but for the first time, we are hearing from a guest during their stay.

This viewer said he was approved for a two week stay, based on a questionnaire he was given over the phone. Upon arrival, he was shown to his room and given a set of toiletries and supplies.

He explained that guests check their own temperature two times a day — once in the morning and again at night — and then report their temperature and any symptoms over the hotel’s landline phone to officials at the facility.

“They don’t provide, obviously, 100% attention as would be in the ER or the hospital,” he said.

He was told there is a medical team on staff and mental health counselors available. Guests are also able to request over-the-counter medication for any symptoms they experience.

They are delivered three meals each day, along with a snack in the evenings.

“It’s funny how they do it. It reminds me of the game when we were little kids: you ring the bell on the houses and then you run away,” he laughed. “The food will be left at the door. That’s the same for any meal. That’s the same for any medication you request. It’s the same for any bed sheets or blankets.” 

While it’s not necessarily “room service,” he said they did ask him about any dietary restrictions or preferences.

“They try to always provide us healthy meals,” he said.

They aren’t allowed to have any visitors — “obviously,” he said.

However, they are offered two “breaks” each day, where guests go in shifts, by floor, to the courtyard of the property to spend time outside.

“I’ve seen some people running around, doing some jogging. I’ve seen people walking the whole entire break,” he said. “I’m actually looking at it from my window right now.”

He assumed people were given breaks “based on the severity of their condition,” but wasn’t sure. He’s chosen to forgo his breaks and, depending on his symptoms each day, has opted for jumping jacks in his room instead.

“Just to avoid increasing my symptoms or giving my symptoms or my virus to someone who was not infected,” he said.

Most days, he reads or uses his computer. There’s a television in the room, too. Last week, his brother dropped off some Independence Day decorations to help him feel more at home.

From his window, he described seeing some families and even first responders checking in and out of the facility.

According to APH, 35 of the current guests are public safety personnel, while 11 are healthcare workers, seven are critical infrastructure employees, and seven are Military members.

The viewer said the only contact he had with another person was when a team came to test the guests. While he’s been generally happy with his stay at the facility, he was concerned about the length of time it took to get his test results: a whole week.

“They really need to work faster and more efficient and harder at getting those results back to those people, so that if you are negative you don’t have to wait here for seven days,” he said.

He worries about guests being exposed while waiting for their results, and that’s why he reported his concerns in a complaint to the city’s 311 line.

“The room next to me, I think, had a gentlemen coughing really bad every single day,” he described. “That’s when I had a concern about what’s going on on this floor: are they mixing people pending results with people who are positive?” 

APH said they are “unable” to separate guests based on their testing status, but they “try to balance the total census on each floor to distribute the workload” among staff.

They said guests spend about 90% of their time isolated in their room, alone.

The spokesperson went on to say, “Guests are required to wear a face covering at any point they are outside of their rooms. They travel up and down the elevator individually. We ask them to social distance while outside and have placed tables and chairs at least 6 feet apart to promote that. We send out different floors to limit the total number of guests together at one time. Intake and discharge take place on an individual basis, guests are required to wear face coverings, are escorted into the facility by staff wearing PPE, then travel alone in elevator to their floor.  The process is repeated with discharge.”

Meanewhile, rooms and common areas are decontaminated between guests. Common areas are cleaned by staff, while a service comes in with electrostatic sprayers with vital oxide to decontaminate guest rooms. They said all staff areas are cleaned routinely, too. 

“If the guests wear face coverings and keep social distance there is a very low risk to anyone,” the spokesperson said.

Despite his concerns, the guest said he would still recommend the facility to anyone who cannot isolate at home.

“I’m very grateful for this resource,” he said. “I think I did the right thing by staying away from the public and my family.”

The city spokesperson said the current contract at the hotel ends at the end of July, but they have a verbal agreement to extend the lease until the end of September.

If you want to make arrangements to stay at the isolation facility, Austin Public Health says to call the intake line at (512) 810-7554.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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