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County offers temporary housing to suburban first responders battling COVID-19 as ‘a safe harbor in this storm’

“The last thing we want [first responders] to do is be afraid to go home to their loved ones, to their friends, to their families,” said William Barnes, chief of the county’s Emergency Management and Regional Security arm.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Kevin Sligh, deputy regional administrator for FEMA Region V, at a news conference last week.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle looks on as Kevin Sligh, deputy regional administrator for FEMA Region V, speaks during a news conference about distributing N95 face masks and other personal protective equipment to suburban first responders last week.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

County officials announced Wednesday they’ll open up over 500 hotel rooms to suburban health care workers and other first responders as respite housing in an effort to minimize the potential exposure and spread of the coronavirus to their families.

The county has 460 hotel rooms in Schaumburg and between 60 and 100 rooms in Oak Lawn that offer their own bathrooms and ventilation systems said William Barnes, chief of the county’s Emergency Management and Regional Security arm.

“The last thing we want [first responders] to do is be afraid to go home to their loved ones, to their friends, to their families,” Barnes said. “By opening up this respite housing, we’re giving them a safe harbor in this storm, the ability to isolate themselves from their families for distinct periods of time while the county fights this very important battle.”

The program is designed for health care workers in hospital or nursing home settings, correctional officers, police officers and fire fighters, who may not have the financial ability to rent a hotel room for an extended stay though the county won’t conduct any means testing for the housing.

Workers will be able to stay in the hotel room for seven days at a time before reapplying to stay longer, officials said.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she hopes the respite housing program will give health care workers and the others “peace of mind.”

“Our first responders, our health care community, both in our hospitals and our nursing home setting, workers in correctional facilities, all face an additional burden when they leave work each day,” Preckwinkle said.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks during a news conference in Oak Forest last week.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks during a news conference in Oak Forest last week.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

“They fear bringing the virus home to their loved ones. We owe it to them to provide a safe place to quarantine if they may be exposed to [coronavirus] but are not experiencing any symptoms. We must protect their loved ones while they protect us,” Preckwinkle said.

The hotel rooms for first responders complements the county’s other alternative housing program for those released from hospitals but who tested positive for the virus and were asymptomatic. The county has around 275 rooms under that program.

Additional housing options could be opened in either program depending on need, Barnes said. The county has identified over 8,000 rooms that could be used for the programs.

Barnes didn’t give a price tag for the hotel rooms, but did say the state is covering the charges and the costs could be reimbursed through the federal government.

Oak Lawn Fire Chief Michael Mavrogeorge said the pandemic has forced first responders to face “a very different and dark fear” that underscores the need for respite housing.

“The possibility that I’m protecting and caring for our citizens, could bring [coronavirus] into our homes and, in fact, even kill our loved ones,” the fire chief said. “No one signed up to hurt their families ... if we are potentially infected with [coronavirus], this program will provide safety for our families, and peace of mind for our responders.”