Social distancing in emergency shelters? Michigan flooding response complicated by COVID-19

Social distancing in emergency shelters? Michigan flooding response complicated by COVID-19

DETROIT – It's hard enough trying to keep Michigan safe in the wake of COVID-19, the worst pandemic in 100 years.

Now add in what's being called a 500-year event, according to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — the massive flooding in Midland County.

"I feel like I've said this a lot over the last 10 weeks, but this is an event unlike anything we've seen before and we've got to continue to all work together to observe best practices, do our part to help one another, and to wear our masks and continue to try to social distance,” Whitmer said at a Wednesday news conference.

Whitmer jokingly admonished a few members in the audience who weren’t standing at least 6 feet apart, but the moment underscored a genuine challenge — how to handle a natural disaster in the middle of a health pandemic that already has claimed 5,000 lives in Michigan.

The record flooding caused by heavy rain and the failure of two dams has displaced up to 10,000 residents, who are sheltering with friends, family and local evacuation sites.

First responders are working within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines while helping evacuees to safety. But concessions are also being made, as some of the social distancing recommendations are difficult to abide by when thousands of people are relocating to a handful of shelters. The CDC currently discourages gatherings of more than 10 people.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer surveys the shelter area set up at Midland High School after flooding and a dam breach in Midland County on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

“It’s absolutely a challenge,” Midland County Public Health Director Fred Yanoski told the Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, in a phone interview. “Our message with normal COVID response is to discourage public gatherings and whatnot. And in this particular situation, it is unavoidable as we’ve had to move several thousand people into a handful of sheltering facilities. It is a challenge.”

The American Red Cross has set up eight shelters in the Midland area for those with nowhere to go. Individuals are being screened for symptoms prior to entering the shelters, and masks and face coverings are being provided to those within the shelters.

In addition, shelter beds are being kept 6 feet apart from each other, and enhanced cleaning and disinfecting practices are being used.

Individuals displaying COVID-19 symptoms are not being allowed within the shelters, and Midland officials are working with the Red Cross to find alternate accommodations for those who may have the virus. In a news release, the organization announced it provided more than 65 overnight hotel stays for residents who had to leave their homes.

“It is not a perfect world, but we are not allowing symptomatic people into the shelter and we will, on an individual basis, make arrangements for those individuals,” Yanoski said. “Those who might be COVID-positive are taken care of separately and accommodated because local public health is currently monitoring all those individuals that are tested positive for COVID as well as close personal contacts. So we are making alternate arrangements to place them prior to them even coming to the shelter if they let us know.”

Yanoski said the challenges will persist for days. The flooding created by the failure of the Edenville Dam may leave downtown Midland under 9 feet of water by Wednesday night, and families are still evacuating and figuring out accommodations.

“Some individuals in shelters are not normally those who would go to a shelter,” Yanoski said. “We have some special needs folks and some that might’ve been in an assisted living facility. We’re trying to incorporate some additional staff to meet the needs of some of our special populations. ... It’s certainly a challenge moving forward.”

Officials are also evaluating the environmental impact of the flooding. On Wednesday, Dow, which has a chemical plant in Midland, announced that it found floodwaters "commingling with on-site containment ponds,” but that it posed no threat to residents or the environment.

Yanoski said while the situation is challenging, the community is up to the task.

“Our community is well-versed in flood response as it is not an uncommon occurrence,” said Yanoski, adding that while the situation is challenging, they are up to the task.

Follow Omari Sankofa II on Twitter: @omarisankofa.


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