LACONIA — The state is considering a COVID-19 quarantine site for the homeless in a building on the former Laconia State School campus, a proposal staunchly opposed by city officials.
“We know this virus passes very easily from person to person, so an outbreak among individuals experiencing homelessness could put an entire community at risk,” Jake Leon, director of communications for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement Tuesday. “The state is looking at potential locations for quarantine housing for homeless individuals, including at the Dube Building.”
Laconia Mayor Andrew Hosmer said using the former campus for such a purpose “has not been sufficiently planned or thought out and the city will pay an unfair price in the middle of a pandemic.”
“The reaction in the city is that people are really upset and feel completely taken advantage of,” Hosmer said.
Belknap County Sheriff Mike Moyer said it’s his understanding that the former dormitory for people with developmental disabilities is being renovated to house a maximum of 50 people.
“Elected officials should be informed,” said Dave DeVoy, who chairs the Belknap County Commission. “The mayor shouldn’t have to find out on social media. I found out from an off-hand comment by the nursing home administrator.”
Leon spelled out the safeguards the state would take if the Laconia site were to be used.
“If such a facility is needed, anyone who would require quarantining would be required to stay inside their room for 14 days in order to prevent spread of the virus,” Leon said. “The state would ensure staffing, including an array of mental health and substance-use disorder providers, security and food services. Once an individual’s 14-day quarantine expires, they would be transported back to their home community.”
Leon said all precautions would be taken to protect the staff and public and the primary goal of such a facility, if it’s needed, is to prevent the spread of the virus from the homeless.
“As the state prepares for a potential surge of COVID-19 on the health care system, agencies have embarked on comprehensive statewide preparedness planning, including setting up clinical surge flex facilities, housing for health care workers to ensure their safety, and quarantine sites in case there is a need to house multiple shelterless individuals,” Leon said.
The one-story brick building has a full walk-out basement and is nearly 23,000 square feet. Contractors were on site on Tuesday.
Belknap County Administrator Deb Shackett drafted a letter Tuesday to Gov. Chris Sununu expressing opposition to the plan on behalf of the county commission, the high sheriff and jail superintendent Keith Gray.
Assistant Safety Commissioner Perry Plummer said officials chose the site because the state owns the property and “it’s campus style,” meaning the state can provide secure access and egress from the parcel.
“This is all about virus management of the unsheltered. We have to have locations so the virus does not spread,” said Plummer, the past director of homeland security and emergency management.
The state reached out to several owners of closed hotels and motels as alternatives before turning to the Dube Building property, he said.
“We found many weren’t interested in providing that service to us,” Plummer said.
Each homeless or “unsheltered” person who tests positive for the virus would voluntarily agree to the quarantine before they are brought to Laconia. They would not be kept there if that person did not want to remain but would be brought to their prior community, he said.
“We will provide transport in for care and then once they are negative, we will provide secure transport to them back to the community they were from,” Plummer said. “We aren’t looking to redistribute our homeless population."
Plummer said Laconia’s public safety officials were fully briefed on the plan and it remains uncertain how many people will be housed in the Dube building at any one time.
At present, this is the only dedicated location the state is considering to house homeless who are under quarantine, he said.
All food for these temporary residents will come from local restaurants, Plummer said.
“We will be looking to order food from local restaurants that can provide takeout and delivery so we can keep the quarantine in effect and give back to business in the region,” Plummer said.
Hosmer said he fears that virus-infected people may leave the Dube building and end up involved with police or the criminal justice system.
“My concern is that we are going to be housing very sick, hyper-contagious people with mental health or substance abuse issues,” he said. “The facility is not locked and if they want to leave, they are going to end up in Laconia interacting with our police department, fire department or people out getting a cup of coffee.”
Union Leader reporter Kevin Landrigan contributed to this report.