By Russell Judd, Ken Keller and Bruce Peters

A version of this op-ed appeared in The Bakersfield Californian. To view the original post, click here.

We’ve all experienced first-hand the impact that COVID-19 has had on our communities.

From schools beginning the academic year with virtual instruction, to the countless small businesses negatively impacted by mandated closures and the latest fashion “trend,” i.e. cloth masks, we have all had to change our lives to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As leaders of the Bakersfield-Kern region’s not-for-profit and safety net hospitals, we want to thank you for your efforts. While we have locally experienced a recent surge in the number of new cases and, sadly, the number of local deaths due to COVID-19, the overall impact to our regional health system has been manageable.

One of the most significant tactics our community can undertake to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to focus on protecting our most vulnerable from contracting the disease.

We know that the elderly, immunocompromised and those with chronic disease or other preexisting medical conditions are at high risk for contracting COVID-19. We also know that if these individuals do contract COVID-19, they are more likely to require intensive care in our hospitals and are at a greater risk of losing their lives. This is the principal reason these individuals have been asked to self-isolate and shelter-in-place.

But what about individuals who have a high-risk for contracting COVID-19 but don’t have a place to call home? How can we help them self-isolate and protect both their health and the health of our community?

Kern Project Roomkey is a short-term initiative funded by the state of California to help protect the health and safety of our community by enabling homeless individuals who are a high-risk for COVID-19 to self-isolate in a local motel. The goal of the Kern Project Roomkey is to help individuals without other means to shelter-in-place take proactive steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative and local homeless service providers have developed a plan to lease one local motel to provide lodging for unsheltered homeless persons at high risk of contracting COVID-19. Individuals in the program must be over the age of 65, have a chronic health condition or be pregnant. They must also be able to provide care for themselves.

Unsheltered homeless people who meet these criteria and have not had any known or suspected COVID-19 exposures will be offered placement in Kern Project Roomkey, as space permits. If the person accepts and agrees to the program’s policies, they receive safe transportation to the motel and are tested for COVID-19 within 24 hours. All participants are assigned a medical and behavioral healthcare team and are allowed to remain in the program for up to 90 days.

BKRHC and our local homeless service providers have conducted robust outreach and planning in order to launch the program with minimal, if any, negative impacts to the health and safety of the area surrounding the proposed Kern Project Roomkey site. The site is not in a residential neighborhood and will be in a location known for its high concentration of unsheltered homeless persons.

The final hurdle for Kern Project Roomkey to overcome before it can launch is for the Bakersfield City Council to approve the issuance of a conditional use permit.

As we head toward the fall season, our hospitals are already preparing for an anticipated second wave of COVID-19. It is imperative that we come together to help limit the spread of COVID-19, especially among our high-risk populations. Kern Project Roomkey should be part of our local strategy to protect the health of our vulnerable neighbors and, in turn, the health of every one of us who call the Bakersfield-Kern region home.

We respectfully ask the Bakersfield City Council to approve the issuance of a conditional use permit for Kern Project Roomkey.

Russell Judd is the CEO of Kern Medical. Ken Keller is the president/CEO of Memorial Hospital. Bruce Peters is the president/CEO of Mercy and Mercy Southwest.

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