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New London opens vacant former nursing home for homeless COVID patients

New London — A portion of a vacant former nursing home opened this week as an emergency measure to accommodate homeless individuals and others exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

The 89 Viets St. site opened with 15 beds on Monday and will be staffed around the clock with an employee from the New London Homeless Hospitality Center and with a nurse on site throughout the week.

The building was opened up thanks to a collaborative effort by the homeless shelter and city, which secured a lease agreement with the owner.

“These are extraordinary circumstances and we need to isolate people to protect the community,” Mayor Michael Passero said.

He said the city had been searching for an appropriate facility to meet this type of need for the past several weeks, looking at the possibility of space in the city’s two colleges and gymnasiums in public school buildings.

“It was here. It was logical. The fire department identified it,” Passero said.

He said an effort by the city, community partners and volunteer groups helped prepare the building for patients. City Public Works Department employees made some minor repairs to the building, got the hot water running and were at the site Monday for some last-minute fixes.

“From the very start of this pandemic we’ve been concerned about people experiencing homelessness,” said Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center.

“Obviously, a crowded site like ours is a dangerous breeding ground for the spread of the virus,” she said. “We need to be prepared.”

Equally important to having a space for the homeless, Zall said, is having a landing spot for people in unstable situations being discharged from the hospital. Upon discharge from the hospital, people staying with friends or family probably should not return to those homes where they were staying without self-isolating for two weeks.

Zall said the space at the former nursing home will help to free up hospital beds.

The former nursing home is being prepared for homeless and others without a place to go after discharge from the hospital. Group homes, institutions, sober houses and other group living settings will need to be planning to provide on-site isolation for their participants, Zall said.

The homeless shelter already has imposed strict protocols on social distancing, hygiene and moved to separate guests as best as possible at its location at 730 State Pier Road.

“We took necessary steps but also recognize that once the virus started to spread and people started exhibiting symptoms, we needed a space for people to self-isolate,” Zall said.

The former nursing home, at one point known as Camelot Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, is in the process of being sold. The site was approved last year as the home of a 56-bed residential care facility. Passero said the city secured a lease agreement with the current owners, listed in public records as Ventas Realty Limited Partnership, c/o Altus Group U.S. Inc.

On Monday, more than a dozen rooms were prepped in anticipation of arrivals in upcoming days or weeks. Each room has a bed, television and small microwave. They all have bathrooms.

Beds were donated by Connecticut College. Volunteers from Community Speaks Out, including state Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, showed up with mops and brooms, joining with shelter volunteers to clean.

Along with partners such as Ledge Light Health District, Zall credited city leadership, Passero and fire Chief Thomas Curcio, with taking a proactive role in looking after the city’s most vulnerable people.

People at the homeless shelter exhibiting symptoms will be safely transferred to the Viets Street facility and evaluated to determine whether they need to stay in isolation, Zall said.

Dr. Craig Mittleman, regional medical director of the emergency services at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and a board member of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, said the effort is an extension of L+M’s existing partnership with the shelter. L+M sponsors the private 10-bed respite area at the shelter, designed for individuals in recovery from an illness.

Mittleman said it was “a very powerful collaboration to bring the (former nursing home) back to life as quickly as it did and as successfully as it did in light of what we will be facing over the next several weeks.”

In speaking with colleagues from harder hit areas, Mittleman said, “they all say managing and getting a handle on your homeless population is one of the top five things you need to get going.”

“It is the right thing to have a place for individuals to recover. Isolation becomes difficult in a homeless shelter. The fact there is a process there to potentially identify patients early and get them to a place to be isolated is really very forward-thinking,” Mittleman said. “The goal is to get them out of a group and into a place that will allow them to heal.

“We’re uniquely fortunate to have this as an option,” he said.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the date in the photo captions.

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