Public emergency shelters serve an essential function in community evacuation plans by providing safe structures to temporarily house evacuees during emergencies. Historically, demand for these facilities has been low relative to the size of the evacuated population, but the COVID-19 pandemic may change patterns of demand. Fear of virus exposure in shelter settings is likely to drive many people to stay with family and friends. But some individuals, particularly those whose social connections are at higher risk, may need to rely on public shelters.

The strategies below can be used by emergency planners to adjust their evacuation plans with respect to COVID-19.

Shelter Planning

Enhance Shelter Capacity in Socially Vulnerable Communities. The demand for public shelters is likely to be highest in communities with the fewest resources. Address the potential need for greater public shelter capacity due to the pandemic by preparing in advance to direct resources to areas with high rates of social vulnerability. The issue of increased demand may be exacerbated by the pandemic as physical distancing requirements and economic losses may make other options less feasible.
Reduce Reliance on Large Congregate Shelters and Update Shelter Designs. Reduce shelter population size to support increased physical distance among occupants within shelters. When this is not feasible, emphasize aggressive mask wearing, strong enforcement policies, sanitization procedures, and frequent hand washing.

Shelter Design and Operations

Incorporate Safety Measures in Shelter Design and Operations. Introduce new health screening and monitoring protocols, and create isolation spaces for people who are sick or who may have been exposed to the virus, consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Red Cross guidelines. Engage in multiagency advance planning to arrange resources and protocols for public health surveillance.
Draw personnel from sources such as the Medical Reserve Corps. Draw personnel from such sources as the Medical Reserve Corps, Community Emergency Response Teams, concert and event staff, students seeking clinical hours and internship opportunities, and regional incident teams outside the evacuation zone. Provide training for both new and existing shelter staff to ensure that they conduct shelter operations safely and in compliance with public health best practices. Thoroughly explain the reasons for exposure control measures and set explicit compliance goals.
Collaborate with Local Partners. In order to reduce the resource burden, consider partnering with local groups. Communicate and coordinate with places of worship, voluntary organizations, and public–private partnerships to provide alternative shelter, coordinate feeding operations, and make available in-kind resources or services. Engage such organizations in planning to develop agreements and ensure adequate training.


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SEAN  is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, substantially contributed to this guidance.

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