The state agency that oversees affordable housing and emergency shelters has reserved more than 100 hotel rooms to address the threat coronavirus poses to homeless people.

A MaineHousing spokeswoman told the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday that the agency rented a total of 115 rooms at three hotels to isolate and create social distancing for people struggling with homelessness. But only a handful of people with COVID-19 were staying at hotels in Portland and Bangor, and it wasn’t clear how many were at a hotel in Knox County.

The news comes as the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced an outbreak at a Bangor homeless shelter, which now has 20 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, including 16 new cases Wednesday.

Denise Lord, senior director of communications and planning, said hotels in Portland and Bangor would be used to isolate individuals who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results. Lord refused to name the hotels – even though the rooms are funded by tax dollars – saying the rooms are only available upon referral.

An additional 15 rooms in Warren are available for people staying at a shelter in Rockland that is operated by the Knox County Homeless Coalition, Lord said, because the facility is too small to meet social distancing guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The U.S. CDC recommends that sleeping mats and cots be spaced at least 6 feet apart.

“We’re trying to locate hotels strategically across Maine to provide backup housing in case there’s an outbreak or a surge … among the homeless population,” Lord said. 

Congregate care facilities, like homeless shelters, are more susceptible to outbreaks because people sleep so close to each other. And many clients have underlying health conditions that could cause more severe symptoms and poorer outcomes.

Chronic overcrowding at Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter was relieved by a mixture of hotel rooms and converted public facilities. File

According to the most recent survey of homelessness in Maine, 1,215 people were homeless statewide on Jan. 22, 2019, with 1,120 people finding shelter at a hotel/motel, emergency shelter or other temporary accommodation.

Until Wednesday, shelter providers have been able to avoid the types of outbreaks occurring at nursing homes and long-term care facilities that have at least three cases.

Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah announced a new outbreak at the Hope House Health and Living Center, a homeless shelter in Bangor. Shah said universal testing was conducted this week after four people tested positive. That resulted in an additional 16 cases.

Lord said the hotels were selected through a competitive bidding process. Forty rooms were secured in Portland, 60 in Bangor and 15 in Warren, she said. The room rates range from $55 a night to $96 a night, because some hotels provide meals, regular housekeeping and deep cleaning services.

All told, Lord said, the state is paying $7,950 a day to keep the rooms available. She said other communities in the United States hope to access federal grants to pay for hotel rooms used by homeless people, and Maine wants to do the same.

In Portland, the only Maine municipality operating a low-barrier shelter, chronic overcrowding at the city’s family shelter and Oxford Street shelter for single adults was relieved by a mixture of hotel rooms and opening new facilities.

Sixteen homeless families were moved to hotel rooms, so most of the family shelter space could be used to isolate and quarantine people awaiting test results or who have tested positive for COVID-19. The Portland Exposition Building was opened for people who may have come into contact with someone who tested positive.

Preble Street, a nonprofit social service agency in Portland, worked with the state to open a temporary wellness center at the University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan Gym for those who don’t have the virus. That facility can serve as many as 50 people.

Those measures have dropped the population at the Oxford Street Shelter, which routinely surpassed its 154-person capacity, to fewer than 75 people, a number that allows the city to meet the social-distancing requirement, according to the city.

Jessica Grondin, a City Hall spokeswoman, said the city continues to use its family shelter as an isolation area and quarantine space. The city will use those hotels only if its family shelter exceeds capacity, she said.

Grondin said 41 men were at the Expo, 53 people were at Oxford Street, 16 families were at the family shelter and another 16 families were in hotels. One person was in isolation and recovering from COVID-19.

Lord said additional wellness centers have been set up in Lewiston and Presque Isle.

“We have 125 people in wellness shelters throughout the state,” Lord said. “That was our first priority to reduce the likelihood of transmission through social distancing.”

If all goes well, state officials hope not to have to use the hotel rooms. Lord said Tuesday that one person, referred by Preble Street, was staying at a hotel in Portland, while two or three were staying in Bangor.

But all of that suddenly changed, at least in Bangor. Lord said she expects infected individuals from Hope House would stay in hotel rooms.

“This situation illustrates exactly why it is so very important to have these rooms ready,” Lord said.

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