In different times you could show up to the Revere Quality Inn, right off Route 1, and book a double room for around $200. You’d get access to the breakfast buffet and an indoor pool.
These days, the budget hotel looks much like it always did from the outside — benign beige exterior, neat shrubs lining the front entrance.
But inside, the building has been transformed. The lobby, with its cheery green rug, has been cordoned off into exam rooms; the fitness center is stacked with boxes of latex gloves and disinfecting wipes. Workers put on full protective gear before picking up room trash.
The Quality Inn is now a COVID Isolation Hotel, with 147 rooms available to people in Chelsea, Revere, and other cities who have coronavirus but cannot safely isolate at home.
Patients there have mild symptoms and do not need to be hospitalized, but they typically live in crowded housing, and risk infecting their families or housemates if they return home.
“It could be a three bedroom with eight adults, and they’re sharing one bathroom,” said Tom Ambrosino, Chelsea’s city manager.
At the inn, patients get a room to themselves and three meals a day, as well as in-person checkups from MGH medical providers, all at no cost. They have television and free wifi. But they also must choose to be confined, to forgo home-cooked meals and the care of their loved ones, to submit to a certain level of surveillance and abstain from going outside. It’s a respite — albeit a lonely, difficult one.
“These are people who in more affluent communities can go home," said Dr. Dean Xerras, the medical director of the MGH Chelsea Healthcare Center and now of the Inn. There are six such hotels in the state, according to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
The difficulty of the experience partly helps explain why, nearly a month after opening, slightly fewer than half of the hotel’s rooms are filled. Thirty-four of those occupants are from Chelsea, the state’s hardest-hit city, with residents referred by hospitals, advocacy groups, primary care doctors, community health centers, and 311 dispatchers.
“I felt like I was in jail, because I didn’t even have a key for my room," Abelardo Sanan, who lives in Chelsea and stayed at the hotel for 14 days, said through a Spanish translator. Sanan worked in a fish processing factory before coming down with the virus. Fearing that he might infect his brother’s wife and daughter, with whom he shares a two-bedroom apartment, he said that he chose to go to the Inn only as a last resort. He worried there wouldn’t be enough food, and once inside, he missed the tortillas, beans, and beef stew he was used to eating at home.
But Sanan, 48, said even so, he would still advise his friends and family to go, to avoid spreading the virus. And although finally getting to leave was a relief, his departure came with its own cascading set of concerns.
“I felt worried, because once I was out of the hotel, I needed to start buying my food, and paying for my stuff," said Sanan, who is out of work and still recovering.
MEMA is providing supplies and food, and the rest of the costs are being covered by the participating cities, which now include Revere, Chelsea, Lynn, and Winthrop, according to a spokeswoman for the City of Revere. The cities hope to be reimbursed substantially by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but aren’t yet sure how that will work, said Steve Staffier, Chelsea’s emergency director.
Transforming a hotel into an isolation center in the middle of a pandemic has presented a range of challenges, touching on everything from the financials to the bed sheets. The hotel has also housed 10 children, the youngest 9 months old.
Perhaps above all, the food has been tricky. The state has primarily provided food from Spinelli’s, an Italian-American restaurant, Staffier said. But most of the patients at the Inn are Latino.
“They’re serving pasta and meatballs. [Patients are] asking for rice and vegetables and chicken," said MGH disaster nurse Jacquelyn Nally, who is the nursing director for the Inn. “I think if this were to happen again, we would consider the cultural sensitivity and the cultural differences for the population that you’re serving."
Many of the patients are dehydrated because of the illness, Nally said, and miss the remedies they would take at home if they were in the same position. But the state’s disaster response cache doesn’t typically include things like Gatorade or chamomile tea, so the nurses had to acquire it separately.
Then there’s the issue of running an entire hotel while caring for patients. When the cities booked the Quality Inn, the operator was cooperative but basically handed over the keys, said Ambrosino, and the cities had to handle security, linens, and laundry services.
Nurses have been drafted to do people’s personal laundry, in full protective gear, because outside cleaners are closed.
“You improvise," Nally said. "You spend a lot of time talking to the patients about their needs and challenges.”
On the medical side, both nurses and patients have had to adjust to unfamiliar ways. Nurses check on patients at least twice a day in the doorways of their rooms, taking their temperature, their oxygen saturation, and other vital signs. Medical providers are available 24/7, and there are also social workers and behavioral health specialists on site.
That type of daily, in-person monitoring is essential to making sure people don’t get even sicker while in isolation, said Dr. Xerras. In New York City, at least four people in isolation hotels died during their stays, partly because the hotels were not staffed by medical personnel, according to the New York Times.
There have been about half a dozen emergency-room transfers to the hospital since the hotel opened, Dr. Xerras said, some of which have led to intensive care.
Community leaders and city officials have grappled with how to get the word out about the Inn.
“One thing that we’ve been emphasizing over and over again is that your immigration status does not matter," said Juan-Carlos Ferrufino, who runs Facebook pages for Revere and Chelsea in Spanish. “People are fearful that this will be a negative impact on their status, if they’re trying to get papers.”
Patients are assigned a number, and only bulk information about the total number of patients is shared with the cities and with the state, Nally said. MEMA confirmed they do not receive specific information about patients’ status, and the hotel does not ask.
Because the level of need among its occupants is so high, even wrap-around services for 14 days can seem like a drop in the bucket.
Abelardo Sanan’s brother, Fredy Sanan, also stayed in isolation at the Quality Inn to protect his wife and daughter. The brothers had separate rooms, but sometimes talked through an open door between them, six feet apart.
“Time passed very slowly," Fredy, who is 39, said through a translator.
Fredy said he spoke with a social worker at the hotel who told him that he could apply for unemployment, a welcome relief since he currently cannot work his construction job.
But once Fredy returned home, he said he did not hear from the social worker again and was overwhelmed by the paperwork required to complete the unemployment application. (Nally said the social worker had followed up, and connected him with a community organization in Chelsea for assistance.) He does not speak English and has difficulty reading Spanish, because he had only one year of schooling in Guatemala.
He is no longer cooped up inside the four walls of a single hotel room, unable to see his family or eat his favorite foods. But with no money coming in to pay for rent or food, he despairs.
“I’m stuck,” he said.