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Maricopa County's hotel for homeless COVID-19 patients has sheltered thousands

Wilburn Magee really did not want to catch COVID-19. He’s a 68-year-old disabled veteran; he’s been without a permanent home for a long time; and he’s seen how severe the virus can be.

“My wife, she caught it about a year and a half ago," Magee said. "She was in a nursing home. They were in isolation also, so I don’t know how she got it.”

Magee's wife later died from other health complications.

Magee got fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and he’s been doing everything he can to avoid germs and to keep others around him healthy, too. 

“My friend, she bought me a big bag of masks and some hand sanitizer and I pass them out," Magee said. 

He avoided the virus for two years, but living in transitional housing meant it was hard to avoid close contact with other people.

“We had four men to a room, and one of the guys got sick. Come to find out he had COVID, and we all got it," Magee said. 

Since he tested positive, Magee has been staying in a quarantine hotel leased by Maricopa County and operated by Circle the City, a nonprofit that provides health care for homeless populations. At the end of his 10-day quarantine, Magee was getting ready to be discharged. Now, he has a housing voucher for veterans, and he’s hoping to find a place where he can live alone.

The extremely contagious omicron variant has driven COVID-19 cases to  record highs in Arizona. And it has sent cases soaring for people experiencing homelessness, who, like Magee, often don’t have the option to isolate.

On Christmas day, there were 25 patients in the quarantine hotel. A month later, it was nearly at capacity, with 117 beds filled.

Recently, about 12 COVID-19 patients a day have been admitted to the quarantine hotel. Circle the City providers report many recent patients have had mild symptoms. 

But nursing staff visit the patients twice a day to monitor for signs patients may need to be transferred to a hospital for a higher level of care. Dr. Nasser Hajaig, Circle the City’s respite medical director, said many patients experiencing homelessness have chronic underlying health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, that put them at higher risk.

"If they get COVID on top of it, it’s more serious for them," Hajaig said. 

Circle the City recognized from the outset of the pandemic that protecting the vulnerable populations it serves would require a massive, coordinated effort. The organization has worked with other human services nonprofits around Phoenix to provide COVID-19 testing, it's provided health screenings with mobile clinics, and it was  one of the first COVID-19 vaccine providers in the state

But Hajaig pointed out, the need for services has only grown since 2020.

“The number of people experiencing homelessness has risen because of the pandemic, and there is no affordable housing in Phoenix," Hajaig said.

Maricopa County has been paying for the quarantine hotel with federal pandemic relief funds. A number of other cities and counties are operating similar quarantine centers nationwide.

At the start of the pandemic, the county set up tents downtown, under the assumption the program would be something temporary. But Rachel Milne, assistant director of housing and community development with the county’s human services department, said it quickly became clear the county would need a lot more beds, and the program would be a much longer commitment.

“I don’t think back in 2020 anyone would have foreseen that we’d still be in this large of place with this many people," Milne said. 

Two years later, more than 2,100 patients have moved through the quarantine hotel.

The site has moved locations a few times. With each surge of the virus, the county has had to find somewhere with more rooms. The lease on the current hotel in north Phoenix goes through June 2022.

Milne said the county health department is constantly reevaluating the need for the program. For now, though, she said it remains a high priority.

"This is a very vulnerable population who doesn't have maybe the ability to go into a room and close the door and quarantine on their own," Milne said. “That was what really got us going on this track to get the isolation hotel set up.” 

Patient Leo Trejo said he's anxious to get a negative COVID-19 test and to move on, but he says in the meantime, he’s grateful to have somewhere to stay. Trejo tested positive while staying at a shelter downtown. Since then, he’s been in the hotel with his cat, watching some football. He's been feeling sick but said at least his spirits are up.

“I always thought Circle the City, the circle is more like a halo," Trejo said. "These people are angels for getting us out of the situation and helping others.”

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Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent. She has produced work for NPR, New England Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, PRI's The World, Washington Post, Reuters and more.She has a master’s degree in radio journalism from the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.She lives in central Phoenix with her husband, two daughters, and ill-behaved cat and dog. Her side-passions include photography, crosswords and hot sauce.