SCHENECTADY — With winter just setting in, the county’s Code Blue shelters have already seen a flurry of activity, prompting concerns about the ability to meet high demand amid a rapidly spreading virus that, for the second year, has altered the way the shelters operate.
The county has already seen 225 bed nights at its Code Blue shelters this winter, about a third of the 609 seen all of last winter season, according to data provided by the county. The shelters provide unhoused individuals a warm place to stay when temperatures dip to 32 degrees or below with a factored wind child.
“It’s already been crowded and we haven’t seen the intense cold weather yet. We’re gearing up for a very full Code Blue [season],” said Michael Saccocio, executive director of the City Mission of Schenectady, the county’s primary Code Blue shelter.
In addition to the City Mission, the county operates Code Blue shelters at Bethesda House and the Altamont Program along Duane Avenue. Neither organization returned messages seeking comment for this story.
But Saccocio said City Mission staff and county officials determined just 15 beds can be safely accommodated due to safety protocols necessitated by the virus. Thirteen of those beds were occupied Tuesday night, when temperatures dropped to 22 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
Demand tends to increase as temperatures drop, said Saccocio, who noted that the City Mission never worried about bed space in years prior to the pandemic.
“It was almost whatever it took,” he said. “We would just kind of keep opening up rooms and keep on putting people in.”
But with social distancing and other safety protocols in place to reduce the spread of the virus, he said there’s real concerns about being able to accommodate everyone, particularly as the omicron variant continues to spread. Still, Saccocio said everyone who comes to the shelter seeking refuge will be accommodated one way or another.
The county currently has 40 Code Blue beds and has plans to add four additional beds later this season. That’s up from last year, when the county added 23 beds to accommodate social distancing requirements, bringing the total number of beds at the time to 38.
The beds supplement available resources at the county’s shelters, according to Erin Roberts, a spokeswoman for the county.
“Individuals who present at a shelter are provided regularly available accommodations as capacity allows,” she said in an email. “Code Blue beds are used in the event normal capacity has been reached.”
The county has also ramped up vaccination efforts at the City Mission and has taken steps to ensure individuals can be properly quarantined without disrupting services, Roberts said.
On Tuesday, Saccocio said the City Mission’s 75-bed men’s congregate shelter was at capacity, and its women’s and children’s shelter, which can accommodate up to 30, are always full.
He said fewer people have utilized shelter services likely due to concerns about the virus. The issue was more pronounced last year, but is no doubt carried over this year, particularly as cases increase due to the omicron variant.
The number of reported cases have surged in recent weeks, soaring past records set during last winter. On Wednesday, the state reported over 74,000 new cases, including 1,654 in the Capital Region. Schenectady County reported an average positive test rate of 9.3% over the last seven days, the equivalent to 74.5 cases per 100,000 residents, according to state data.
“I would say it was more pronounced last year when we were all saying ‘what is this?’” Saccocio said. “That being said, I have no doubt that there’s people that would otherwise be coming to the shelter that are not coming now because they’re hearing about these spikes and they are feeling it’s not safe for them to do that.”
Those who come to the Code Blue shelter spend a night in an isolation room, away from the dozens of residents who occupy the City Mission’s dormitories and transitional housing units.
From there, individuals who are fully vaccinated are free to move into the dorms while unvaccinated individuals must test negative before being allowed to do the same. Those that test positive are moved to a quarantine room, which are housed at one of the several transitional housing units left vacant in the event of an outbreak.
But with the virus surging, testing has become more difficult to secure, and Saccocio is concerned with what would happen in the event that testing cannot be completed in a timely fashion.
He said individuals would likely have to stay in the isolation room until a test can be secured, which would further strain the City Mission’s already limited resources.
The City Mission serves a mixture of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, which Saccocio estimated to be around 50-50. A weekly vaccination clinic is hosted at the City Mission, which he said has been well-attended.
Still, the City Mission has seen a number of COVID outbreaks, particularly as the colder months set in, according to Saccocio, who said individuals have already been quarantined this season.
“It seems to be a seasonal issue, but it’s a serious issue, especially now with the higher cases,” he said.
Dealing with the problem
The City Mission has a number of vacant transitional housing units available in order to accommodate quarantines, but the empty rooms mean fewer beds for others.
“If it’s empty space, then someone’s not sleeping in it, but if you don’t have empty space, you don’t have any flexibility when people test positive,” he said.
But even with the empty space, the City Mission was forced to relocate several individuals from transitional housing units to local hotels in order to provide additional quarantine quarters following an outbreak that impacted around 15 residents last winter.
And with omicron spreading, Saccocio fears similar measures will need to be taken again this year.
“We haven’t been that severe yet, but we’ll see what the future brings,” he said.
Roberts, a spokeswoman for the county, said the county has taken provisions to ensure individuals can be quarantined without reducing the number of available beds, and has the testing capacity to accommodate individuals coming to the shelter. Steps have also been taken to ramp up vaccination efforts.
“We have the capacity to test and offer on-site vaccine PODs through our public health department,” she said. “In the event someone tests positive at a Code Blue shelter, the county has made arrangements for the individual to shelter in place. If rooms are filled, the county has contracted for additional resources that can be used without reducing bed capacity.”
Meanwhile, Saccocio said the City Mission has been adjusting to the pandemic as the situation has evolved, and will do so again if necessary.
One thing, he said, isn’t going to change.
“The doors are staying open and we’re going to be available for people,” he said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.