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Shelters should be a last resort amid COVID-19 pandemic, officials say

Red Cross prepares for hurricanes amid pandemic
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Posted at 1:35 PM, Jul 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-01 18:28:20-04

TAMPA, Fla. — The American Red Cross is working around the clock to implement new protocols, train volunteers and prepare for whatever storm aims for Florida. But, running to a shelter at the last minute should never be your first option, especially this year.

"We call it a lifeboat, and we call it that for a reason," Nelson said.

In September 2017, during Hurricane Irma, thousands of people from across the state rushed to shelters for safety. The storm was unprecedented then, and if a similar one hits Florida during COVID-19, it could create a worst-case scenario.

"The Red Cross doesn't turn anyone away, so we will figure out how to make it work as safely as possible," Rachel Nelson, the Central Region Director of Communications for Florida, said. "But, we are definitely doing a lot of forward and advance planning to mitigate those risks."

Nelson said wildfires out West and tornadoes in the Midwest and South have already tested some new protocols.

"We are trying to prioritize additional space, so whether that is hotel rooms, whether it is dormitory-style spaces," Nelson said.

If a traditional storm shelter has to open because of a significant disaster event, people will be spaced out and socially distanced per CDC guidelines. Volunteers will be screened for temperature checks and health assessments along with the public entering a shelter. Masks are required. If there is a storm and someone is sick, the Red Cross will not turn you away.

"We are prepared to provide an isolation care area so those folks and their family can be separated from the more general population," Nelson said. "There will be space more space, so that means fewer people will be able to be accommodated in each shelter but that it is for their safety."

More space and fewer people crowded into a shelter means they need more volunteers.

"I joined because it was a way to strengthen my skills, give back," Meera Ratani, the outgoing president of the USF Red Cross Club, said. "Right now is a really different time everybody is going through a whole bunch, and if there is something one person to do to make this uncertain time better, we should do it, and this is just one really good way to do it helping people when they need it most."

Nelson said a lot of their volunteers are in the high-risk group for COVID-19.

"So, we are definitely looking at recruiting and training in a new way, some individuals that are willing to be ready when the time comes," Nelson said.

Nelson says if you are thinking about riding out a storm in a mandatory evacuation zone, don't.

"Our policy is if you are asked to evacuate that is also for your safety staying at home is for your safety, but this is a different scenario, so if you are asked to evacuate, we really ask individuals to have a plan to do so," Nelson said. "Have a plan now, and that plan may look different this year than it has in the past reach out to relatives, and friends, and people outside the immediate area so that you have other options of places to go besides a shelter which is a really last resort this year."

For additional information on hurricane preps, click here.