An infrared thermometer

An infrared thermometer
Photo: Vershinin89/Shutterstock

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In late March, when 17 people living in homeless shelters had tested positive for COVID-19 and zero had died, city officials weren’t taking the temperature of residents.

But as the coronavirus crisis intensified, officials promised to get enough thermometers right away to screen for symptoms.

Six weeks later, an order for 1,800 infrared touchless thermometers sits in boxes in a room in China, held up by Chinese customs. The earliest New York can expect to see even part of that order is May 4.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-positive homeless New Yorkers has risen to 775, with 57 more killed by the virus as of Tuesday.

The delay of the 1,800 thermometers is just one of the obstacles the city has faced as coronavirus spreads through city-run shelters, forcing the Department of Homeless Services to evacuate hundreds of residents to “isolation” hotel rooms across the city.

The thermometer shortage, though, also extends to the hotels.

At a DHS isolation hotel in Brooklyn, where dozens of shelter residents who are presumed positive have been staying over the last month, apparently nobody was given thermometers to monitor themselves for fever.

That’s a problem: The nurses assigned to the hotel perform only telephone wellness checks and rely on residents to take their own temperature.

Deborah Berkman, a senior attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group, which represents a resident at the Brooklyn hotel, said he’d been placed there March 25 as a presumptive positive with multiple symptoms. He’s been there since and hasn’t been tested.

During his stay, he spiked a fever. And since the residents there are required to share space, he’s had three different roommates, all of whom displayed COVID-19 symptoms, Berkman said.

“They couldn’t take their temperature for weeks,” she said, noting that on Friday — a month after he arrived at the hotel — a nurse finally showed up with a thermometer.

“The city is failing in its obligation to protect people experiencing homelessness by putting them into isolation without adequate supplies like thermometers and (personal protective equipment) and cleaning supplies,” Berkman said. “This has been going on for a long time. One of these hotels was open for over a month without a thermometer.”

On Tuesday, Isaac McGinn, a DHS spokesperson, acknowledged the city’s scramble to find thermometers.

“While our whole city continues to face supply chain challenges, all agencies are working hand in hand to continually evolve and improve processes, strengthening coordination every day to ensure the vital needs of all New Yorkers are met during this crisis, including New Yorkers experiencing homelessness,” he said.

But he contended — despite the scenario Berkman described — that DHS had distributed to isolation hotels an adequate supply of 200 of “reusable” thermometers.

“Those sites have not expressed additional need at this time,” he wrote in an emailed response to THE CITY’s questions. “We are prepared to distribute more if needed.”

How residents unable to record their temperature can ever leave an isolation hotel remains to be seen. The timeframe for returning to a shelter is 14 days after symptom onset and three days without fever.

McGinn said DHS was also able to get 1,000 more reusable thermometers from the Department of Citywide Administrative Services for use in shelters, and the main shipment of 1,800 infrared models is expected to arrive next week.

The bulk purchase was made by the city Office of Emergency Management on April 8 with a due-by date of April 30.

Dependable Office Supplies, the Long Island company that got the contract, is to be paid $129,780 upon delivery. But firm manager Phazele Psianwala said the thermometers won’t arrive from China until at least May 4.

And that won’t be the whole order — just the first 500.

“There is so much stuff in China. Every day the rules and regulations are changing,” Psianwala said in an interview. “After Customs clears, I’m diligently working on this. We depend on this country so much.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio gives an update at City Hall about the spread of the coronavirus, March 16, 2020.

Mayor Bill de Blasio gives an update at City Hall about the spread of the coronavirus, March 16, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans Wednesday to expand the shift of homeless now living in overloaded congregate-setting shelters into hotels. De Blasio said 1,000 people would be moved this week, with 1,000 more a week going forward.

As part of that move, the mayor has also promised increased medical oversight at the isolation sites, as well as systematic COVID-19 testing of homeless people throughout the system. City Hall took action after at least four COVID-positive homeless residents passed away at the hotels.

“Anyone who tests positive will be isolated,” the mayor promised. “The goal is to reach across the entire shelter system by the middle of May.”

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