Are Warming Centers Safe During a Pandemic?

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Key Takeaways

  • Warming centers are enforcing COVID-19 precautions, including mask-wearing and social distancing.
  • More warming centers are veering away from mass gatherings in gyms. Instead, people are often in isolated areas such as hotel rooms and separate classrooms.
  • Warming centers remain a safe source for people seeking shelter from natural disasters.

Warming centers are temporary emergency shelters designed to house people in hazardous weather conditions. With Texans dealing with power outages and limited to no access to water from a brutal winter storm, some people have taken refuge in nearby warming centers.

But Texans are facing another crisis: a pandemic that has already claimed the lives of over 500,000 Americans. The winter storm caused many vaccination sites to close, and there are concerns that warming centers could become the next breeding ground for super spreader events.

Concerns of COVID-19 Spread Indoors

The risk of being infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is higher when you’re indoors versus outdoors. The first problem is that indoor spaces make social distancing difficult. The second is that poor ventilation can aid in COVID-19 transmission.

William Lang, MD, medical director of both WorldClinic and JobSitecare and a former White House physician, tells Verywell that COVID-19 can spread via large-particle aerosols, which linger more easily in indoor air.

“What this means is that the infectious particles—generally generated by coughing, sneezing, or even loud talking/singing—can remain airborne for a prolonged period once expelled from the infected person,” Lang says.

Last May, The Texas Tribune reported many homeless shelters closed down because they had become hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks.

As a result, shelters will need to allocate a portion of their funding for HVAC ventilation. “More ventilation, including both actual air changes with outside air and high volume ventilation to get to the equivalent of more than 20 air exchanges per hour, would certainly reduce risk,” Lang says.

However, many temporary shelters are limited in their ability to make modifications to the buildings that house them. Harley Jones, MA, Senior Manager, Domestic Emergency Response for international healthcare NGO Project HOPE, says that while hospitals can section off entire wards and implement different ventilation systems, shelters are set up in buildings that might not allow for these precautions.

Jones also says people are more likely to act in response to the current danger of the Texas storms than worry about the risks of the pandemic.

“Making sure you’re social distancing and making sure you’re masked sometimes falls to the wayside when you’re worrying about where you stay and eat the next day," Jones tells Verywell. "And I think that’s human nature.”

Warming Centers Are Taking COVID-19 Precautions

Texas isn't the first place to set up warming centers during the pandemic. Jones says other warming centers have stepped up their preventive measures against COVID-19 in the past year. And part of that comes after learning from experience. After Hurricane Zeta’s disaster relief efforts in Louisiana last October, Jones says COVID-19 cases did spike. Still, shelters worked to reduce risk by enforcing social distancing and preventing mass gatherings.

According to KVUE ABC, many Texas warming centers require masks for admission, and some have restricted the use of showers.

Jones says warming centers and shelters also provide people with personal protective equipment (PPE) throughout their stays and when they leave to reduce the risk of future transmission.

What This Means For You

If you need assistance, don't avoid a warming shelter because of pandemic-related fears. Warming centers are safe resources during weather-related disasters, or when you’re in an area with limited access to food, clean water, and shelter.

Traditional locations for warming centers and shelters, such as school gyms, are now being used as a last resort. Most organizations and states have opted for isolated spaces to promote social distancing, like individual classrooms.

Some areas have successfully relocated people to individual hotel rooms.

“Jurisdictions, governments, and emergency groups [encouraged] non-congregate sheltering," Jones says. "I think Louisiana did a great job at scattering people to hotel rooms than large-scale shelters."

Resources for Staying Safe in Texas

 The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Jocelyn Solis-Moreira
Jocelyn Solis-Moreira is a journalist specializing in health and science news. She holds a Masters in Psychology concentrating on Behavioral Neuroscience.