This is the second Q&A in a series about hurricane preparation and response during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the first here.
The American Red Cross is one of the largest disaster relief organizations in the nation, working closely with state, federal and local agencies to coordinate emergency operations. One of its most crucial roles is setting up public shelters for people who need to evacuate in times of crisis, including tornadoes, wildfires, and hurricanes.
With hurricane season in full swing, Southerly spoke with Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations and logistics. He oversees the organization’s domestic disaster operations. The agency is still planning around the spread of COVID-19, but some policies and procedures have changed during the third year of the pandemic. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
How have sheltering operations changed over the last three years of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Brad Kieserman: Our mission is to prevent human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers, the generosity of donors. So what that looks like on the Gulf Coast, especially around hurricane season, is what we call mass care. That’s sheltering, feeding, providing disaster health services, disaster mental health services such as for spiritual care, distributing emergency supplies, providing casework, and financial assistance. We really work in support of state and local governments to meet the mass care needs of their communities.
Pre-COVID, we had a whole host of facilities—tens of thousands of facilities—that have been pre-identified as potential shelters. They are readily available for us to select with our partners to meet any disaster needs that we have around the country.
When COVID came along, we began by increasing the amount of shelter space we provided per person. You typically need more facilities because you have less space in the facilities that you’re using. Most of the sheltering that was done during COVID was done through non-congregate sheltering, which means hotels and motels. And so the Red Cross during COVID from 2020 all the way through the end of 2021, we were operating under COVID restrictions. There was availability and occupancy in hotels. In many respects it was a win win—we could give non-congregate shelter to our clients and provided local hotels with revenue. But with the travel sector back to pre-pandemic standards, there really aren’t hotel rooms available at scale to support non-congregate sheltering. In the last three years, we have explored virtually every option outside of hotel rooms for non-congregate shelters, and there’s not much.
We are back to congregate sheltering, in part because the public health environment supports it, and in part because there is simply very little availability of other resources because the rest of the world is back to pre-pandemic.
So this year what we’ll do is we’re going to open congregate shelters with our partners, as we always do. We return to our standard spacing, which is 40 square feet per person, which is frankly more than enough to comply with even the most conservative social distancing recommendations. We recognize that COVID is out there. How can we make people who are in shelters comfortable, healthy, and reduce the rate of transmission? How can we protect our workforce? And the key to that is just working with public health community by community and trying to accommodate what they believe is the best recommendations for their communities.
How is the Red Cross approaching mask requirements, as federal and state mandates are no longer in place?
BK: We do require masks in all Red Cross shelters for everyone. So all of our workforce, volunteers and staff are all required to wear masks. We strongly encourage all of our clients to wear masks as well. We provide masks at all of our shelter facilities.
We are never going to turn somebody away simply because they won’t wear a mask. When we balance the risks presented by COVID and the risks of somebody who’s turned away and therefore displaced and homeless, or they have to be out at night in a dangerous setting like a wildfire or hurricane environment, safety dictates that we make sure we can admit everybody to shelters. We’ve typically tried to separate people who won’t wear masks from people who will wear them to make sure we get maximum protection for those who may be vulnerable. Sometimes that involves having shelters, sometimes it involves, like in a school, using different spaces for those not wearing masks.
What agencies or experts does the Red Cross look to for public health guidelines?
BK: Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have followed CDC guidance. That said, we really do work with individual public health authorities in states and counties, both pre-disaster and in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, because conditions can change. For example, the situation in Louisiana was different two months ago.
How would your agency respond to a COVID case in a shelter?
BK: When we admit people to the shelter, we make sure we ask them basic questions—do they have any symptoms, have they had COVID over the last two weeks—the standard questions you see now, virtually every setting.
We have what’s called a COVID care team within the Red Cross that monitors our COVID infection rate at every shelter that we operate. We have disaster health services folks who are constantly walking the floor of shelters and talking with clients. They’re on the lookout for people who may be symptomatic. They talk to people, ask how they’re feeling, and then we provide COVID testing. If somebody is symptomatic or telling us they don’t feel well in a shelter, we’ll provide those tests. And so that unit tracks our data and allows us to see trends. And those trends allow us to impose additional mitigation if it’s warranted.
If somebody tests positive, then all of our shelters either have an isolation unit within the facility or they have another shelter that’s nearby where we can move folks into isolation, In places like a school, people who are testing positive may end up in the library or in classrooms.
We’ve not yet had a single instance where we could not accommodate somebody who either was COVID positive. If we’re dealing with a small number of families becoming ill, that is something we can generally deal with in hotel rooms.
At the end of the day, if you step out your front door, most of the world is back to normal. Being vaccinated and boosted doesn’t prevent you from being sick, but it prevents you from being very sick. So we have to accept the fact that COVID isn’t going anywhere. And that means that people are going to get COVID, including while they’re displaced from their homes through the disaster. And we have to be in a position to care for them.
How can individuals make sure they’re being as safe as possible if they need to find shelter during a disaster?
BK: Getting vaccinated and being fully boosted your best defense against severe COVID. The data are very clear on that. For a variety of reasons, that might not be an option for everyone. They may not know how to access vaccines, or believe it costs money and haven’t investigated options, or they choose not to get the vaccine.
In these situations, we have a close relationship with public health authorities and support vaccine campaigns in shelters. The dilemma is that people can have reactions to the vaccine. Many people may have symptoms for 12 hours, they don’t feel well. So we have to be prepared to care for folks in the ensuing 48 hours when folks may have reactions. But we can be supportive of those protocols, especially if it makes the community more safe.