As B.C.’s health care workers continue to put themselves at risk fighting on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have made difficult choices to avoid putting their loved ones at risk, as well.
“We've had members across the province very concerned about returning home after their shift for a couple of reasons, one being they are concerned about bringing COVID from the workplace, into the community, back to their home and into their families,” said Christine Sorensen, president of the BC Nurses’ Union.
“Some have immunocompromised family members who live with them, pregnant family members who live with them so they are concerned about those people.”
In other cases, B.C. nurses are working even longer shifts than their typical 12 hours, Sorensen said. “Some of them live an hour away from where they work. They're exhausted by the end of their shift, they're concerned about the drive, and then they have to return for their next shift,” she continued.
These concerns have prompted many nurses to find alternative living arrangements, whether it’s sleeping in their garages, in tents or on cots, living in basement suites or staying in spare bedrooms. “Some have also looked to send their children, say, to other family members to be cared for while they're going through this,” Sorensen said. “And that's difficult for them.”
But, while health care workers continue to face the virus head-on, non-essential workers are staying home and avoiding travel, leaving many B.C. hotels empty. That’s put local hotels and nightly rental services in a unique position to help the health care workers struggling with these tough decisions - and they’re stepping up to the plate.
“We're very fortunate that the community has really rallied behind this request. A number of hotels - small chains, boutique hotels, independents - have come forward and offered accommodation at significantly reduced rates,” Sorensen explained, adding that she had just been in touch with Best Western as well.
One of the first businesses to do so was Accent Inns, a smaller family-run chain with locations in Victoria, Kelowna, Kamloops, Burnaby, and in Richmond near YVR.
“We learned that nurses were sleeping in their cars in order to protect their families from the virus,” said Accent Inns’ president & CEO Mandy Farmer in a filmed statement. “This broke our hearts, so we decided to put together a rock-bottom rate in order to … provide them with a safe, comfortable place to weather this storm.”
After hearing about the offer, community members rushed to help, flooding the chain with offers to pay for essential workers’ stays. Since, that generosity has snowballed into a program, Hotels for Frontline Workers, created in partnership with the United Way of Greater Victoria, that is accepting donations to foot the bill for those on the front line.
As of April 8, Accent Inns said over 900 room nights for essential workers across B.C. have been covered by the community through this program. All front line workers are eligible and encouraged to call 1-800-663-0298 to book a stay.
In downtown Vancouver, The Burrard Hotel has been offering up hotel rooms for local hospital staff to use, whether for overnight stays or as break rooms, where they can catch up on a couple hours of sleep or take a shower. The Century Plaza Hotel is also accommodating staff from nearby St. Paul’s Hospital, while the Park Inn and Suites by Radisson, located near Vancouver General Hospital, is offering rooms at reduced rates for hospital workers who need a safe place to stay overnight or take a break.
Meanwhile, Fraser Health says it is “working with our community and Foundation partners” to connect frontline workers with available hotel rooms where they can self-isolate away from home. “This is intended to support staff and medical staff who are working in areas with a higher likelihood of encountering COVID-19 patients as well as health care workers who have been identified as contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Our Foundations are leading this work with the local site leadership,” their website explains.
Nightly rental services have also hopped on board.
Following its launch in March, Airbnb’s 'Frontline stays' program - in which the home-stay giant is partnering with its hosts to waive fees for the first 100,000 stays booked for COVID-19 responders - is expanding, the company explained in a release.
While frontline health workers were initially only able to book an Airbnb stay through a list of partner organizations, the program is now allowing individual responders to book these stays directly on the Airbnb platform. Anyone who may not be able to open their home to an essential worker, but still would like to help, can donate to help fund even more stays.
While Sorensen said nurses are grateful for theses offers and for the abundance of community support they’ve received, her union is calling on the government to implement a subsidized accommodation program for health care workers .
“We'd like this to be coordinated by the province, because it should apply for all nurses around the province. In small rural and remote areas, they have more difficulty because often there aren't hotels in those areas,” she said.
“Nurses shouldn’t have to pay out of their own pocket in order to protect the public and protect their families.”