How do you shelter dozens of disaster victims at a time when a highly contagious virus is causing widespread shutdowns and concern? That’s the question Red Cross disaster workers had to ask themselves, answer, and then put into action after a large apartment fire in Philadelphia on May 11.
One week later, the Southeastern PA sheltering team successfully closed what was their first COVID-19 era hotel shelter, where they provided 284 overnight shelter stays across two hotels in the city, in large part thanks to a team of dedicated health services volunteers.
It’s fitting that the shelter, which relied heavily on the skills of its health services volunteers, wrapped up just as EMS Week, a week to honor Emergency Medical Services personnel, was beginning. EMS worker Will Dobnak, who serves as an EMT in Montgomery County, played a large role in the shelter operation as a Red Cross Disaster Health Services Lead.
“These two roles are not dissimilar in that they are both high adrenaline, fast paced fields where people are experiencing the worst days of their lives. I started in EMS at 16 as a volunteer, and quickly fell in love with being able to use my knowledge and skills to be an element of calm in the storm,” he said.
Dobnak played an integral role in the hotel shelter, as Disaster Health Services was responsible for screening all shelter staff and displaced residents for signs of COVID-19. He said he’s used to wearing masks and gloves, and washing his hands a lot, but that the social distancing aspect was something he had to keep front of mind.
“Disaster personnel are, by nature, empathetic individuals who want to be up close and personal with our clients. COVID -19 has forced us to confront this nature within us and adapt to the changing times.”
At this shelter, Dobnak was in charge of making sure all shelter staff and shelter residents were given masks to wear. Shelter residents were also screened every morning with temperature checks and a checkup for any respiratory symptoms. Disaster staff were screened upon reporting to the shelter for their shift, and when leaving their shift.
Staff put social distancing markers on the floor to help keep everyone adequately spaced in common areas. Meals were served individually wrapped, and eaten in rooms, as opposed to in a cafeteria. At the end of the week, nearly all of the nearly 60 displaced apartment residents were allowed back inside their units, giving Dobnak a moment to reflect.
“Health Services is a vital service line when it comes to recovery. Our volunteers serve each day in answering Disaster Action Team assistance calls when people who are affected by disaster need help replacing medications or durable medical equipment like breathing machines or wheelchairs and glasses,” Dobnak said. “In a shelter environment, Health Services volunteers are responsible for maintaining the health and safety of all clients and staff in that shelter.”
A tall order, but one Dobnak and other Red Cross volunteers are committed to for this disaster response, and the ones that will inevitably arise in the future.