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Coronavirus response: ‘State-of-the-art’ tents ready, waiting for potential surge in COVID-19 cases among Springfield’s homeless

SPRINGFIELD — Few homeless people have sought help at the new triage tents on Worthington Street set up in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but the city's health commissioner believes the site is in a lull before the storm.

As of Thursday morning about a dozen people have visited the three large triage tents across the street from the Friends of the Homeless shelter since they began operating Saturday, said Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris.

The city, however, received 300 long-awaited coronavirus testing kits on Wednesday, and is preparing for a significant increase in those seeking help, Caulton-Harris said. The kits were received with the aid of U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, and the city continues to pursue more, officials said.

The tents are for screening homeless individuals and testing them for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. They also provide safe quarters — and separation from others at the shelter — for those who are infected, or who might be.

"As we begin to test, we will have more individuals who are positive, and need to be isolated," Caulton-Harris said. "We anticipate those numbers will increase."

It cost the city $398,275 to erect and equip the three large "state-of-the-art" tents, according to Timothy J. Plante, the city's chief administrative and financiial officer. He estimated the monthly cost for maintenance and some operations at $165,000.

The city is pursuing grants and disaster aid to recoup that cost, Plante said.

The tent facility was necessary because current shelters are not set up to prevent the spread of the virus, Caulton-Harris said. The tents can provide shelter to up to 150 people.

"It was necessary for this facility to be built and be state of the art so that we can assure that our most vulnerable, marginalized and undeserved population is serviced," Caulton-Harris said. "The current facility at Friends of the Homeless did not have the space nor the adequate controls to be able to house COVID-positive individuals or those under investigation."

One tent is 20 feet by 40 feet and will be used for testing. Another is to isolate those who are showing symptoms, and a third is for those in quarantine. The latter two tents are 40 feet by 135 feet.

The city is providing the tent complex in partnership with local organizations including the operator of Friends of the Homeless and local hospitals. Friends of the Homeless staff and medical professionals are helping at the site.

The three tents have heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems among other utilities, said Patrick J. Sullivan, the city's director of parks, buildings, and recreation management. They also have electricity, hot and cold-running water, and bathrooms, he said.

His department began construction in late March.

The tents have separate entrances and nursing stations. Two have floors, officials said.

Those who have used the facility so far are either known to have COVID-19, or are suspected cases, officials said.

The state National Guard and police are assisting at the site.

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