12/30/2020 09:00 EST | Updated 12/31/2020 13:06 EST

I Isolated In A COVID-19 Quarantine Hotel And It Was Nothing Like You Would Expect

"When I told people I was going to stay in a government-sponsored quarantine hotel, they said it sounded like the plot of a horror movie."

YakobchukOlena via Getty Images

When I told people I was going to stay in a completely isolated COVID-19 quarantine hotel, they said it sounded like the plot of a horror movie. I can’t say I entered the situation without any sense of trepidation myself. 

I was between homes when I found out I had been exposed to the coronavirus. I live in San Francisco, and the city provides free, government-sponsored COVID-19 testing to its residents. As soon as I learned I had come in contact with the virus, I was able to go to a walk-in testing site.

My results came in roughly 30 hours, and I tested negative. However, false negatives are possible, especially early in an infection, and it can take two to 14 days for symptoms to show up, so I wasn’t necessarily in the clear yet.

I couldn’t move in anywhere new or crash with friends because I might have had the virus and didn’t want to expose anyone. I’d been laid off due to the pandemic and was surviving off odd jobs, so isolating in a hotel on my own dime was financially out of the question.

But San Francisco provides free quarantine hotels for people who have nowhere else to isolate. I left a message on the hotline explaining my situation. When they called and asked if I was ready to go, the dispatcher made sure I knew what I was getting myself into.

“It’s total isolation, so you can go for a walk around the parking lot with your mask on, but that’s about it,” she warned. 

“That’s fine!” I chirped. I was more than happy to be super-isolated if it meant eliminating the risk of spreading the virus to others.

“We’ll send you three meals a day, and we do COVID testing on-site, so you won’t have to leave for any reason,” she explained.

“Wow, OK!” I said.

“We’ll send a van to pick you up in half an hour. Just so you know, depending on which cars we have available at the moment, it might be an ambulance.”

“Wow! I ... what?”

The van that came to pick me up was not, in fact, an ambulance, but it was a large white van with vaguely janky-looking plastic sheeting held together with tape to separate me from the driver. The van said “SF Paratransit” on the side, so that slightly reassured me that I was not about to become part of the plot of a film starring Liam Neeson.

Still, as I stepped into the van and watched the driver shut and bolt the door, I had a brief moment of “Wait ― what exactly have I gotten myself into?” 

Courtesy of Jessica Nemire
Plastic sheeting inside the van separated the author from the driver.

We arrived at the hotel. It was a standard two-star facility, with a fenced-in parking lot monitored by security guards so nobody could come in (or leave). As he let me out of the back of the van, the driver sardonically remarked with a chuckle, “We’re here! Time to heat up the Jacuzzi and get the mini-bar ready!” 

I was greeted by two friendly nurses who showed me to my room, verified that I knew why I was there, took my temperature, and explained how the quarantine was going to go. They said that because every “guest” at the hotel had been exposed to the virus, we were not allowed to leave until we were medically cleared. Therefore, nobody was provided with room keys, so if we left our rooms, we would not be able to get back in. However, if I needed fresh air, I could contact the front desk and they would allow me into the hotel’s courtyard. 

They said they did daily checks on each guest to monitor our symptoms and noted there were medical professionals on-site 24/7, including mental health support staff. My room had a phone with a clearly marked number I could call at any hour of the day to ask for extra towels, extra food or anything else I might need. The dispatcher had mentioned I could take walks around the parking lot, so I double-checked with the nurses to see if this was allowed.

“You can, but just be careful talking to other residents, because they might be COVID-positive.” Roger that.

Courtesy of Jessica Nemire
The little ledge in front of her room where the author sat to get some air.

Thus began my stay in the quarantine hotel ― or “Hotel COVIDfornia,” as I nicknamed it. My room had WiFi, a desk, a TV, a mini-fridge and a microwave. I made a schedule for myself to adhere to every day so that I’d stay productive and, you know, not go crazy. I wrote, applied for jobs, and spent a lot of time searching for a place to move into once I was discharged as coronavirus-free, disclosing my situation with every potential place I talked to. 

Throughout my time at the hotel, I was concerned that I was taking up space needed for someone who was actively sick. I tried to remember that I didn’t have anywhere else to quarantine, had been exposed to COVID-19, and still might be sick ― just asymptomatic or with symptoms about to show up ― so it would be worse to wander around in public or stay with someone else.

Courtesy of Jessica Nemire
Lunch, Day 3

On Day 3, as I was settling into the riveting nightly routine I’d developed over the past nine months (i.e., binging “90 Day Fiancé” spinoffs and beating Midwestern strangers at Words With Friends), I suddenly became extremely congested and found it hard to breathe. My chest got tight, my nose was stuffed up, I couldn’t smell, and I started having to take dramatic open-mouth heaves in order to feel any air come into my lungs. 

Since, like many of us, I’ve obsessively Googled every random ailment I’ve had since late March, I knew that shortness of breath is a COVID-19 symptom. I realized that I was literally surrounded by on-call nurses, so I picked up the phone and called them.

Someone answered immediately. We shared a laugh over the fact that I wasn’t sure what my room number was (“I don’t get out much,” I joked) and she brought me two different decongestant medicines.

My symptoms persisted the entire time I was there, and they were bad ― like “turning the bathroom into a makeshift sauna three times a day just so I could breathe through my nose” bad.

When I disclosed this to the nurses during one of the daily checks, they reassured me that because the congestion wasn’t accompanied by any other symptoms, it was probably just due to allergies (and they were correct).

Courtesy of Jessica Nemire
The Hotel COVIDfornia bed with the super-comfy blanket the author brought with her.

A few days before the end of my stay, someone stopped in to give me a COVID-19 test, noting that if it came back negative, I’d be good to go in a couple of days. They also said they would be able to help me find somewhere else to stay if I still didn’t have a place. 

My test came back negative, and I was discharged with a government-issued letter stating that I was COVID-free.

So, was my stay at Hotel COVIDfornia like something out of a horror movie? Not even a little bit. Instead, it’s an amazing service that San Francisco offers to its residents, along with free testing, to try to slow the spread of the virus.

Los Angeles, New York and some other cities and counties have similar quarantine options for those who need them. If you or someone you know has been exposed to COVID-19 and has nowhere else to isolate, contact your local health department, pandemic resources site or COVID-19 hotline to find out whether such services are available. (At least in San Francisco, the infected person you came in contact with needs to call the hotline and state that they have exposed you.)

Please note that this is the account of my personal experience at one facility in San Francisco, and I can’t speak to the experience of staying in a quarantine hotel anywhere else. Still, if you or someone you know has been exposed to COVID-19 and doesn’t have anywhere else to isolate without risking exposing others, a quarantine hotel could be a safe and reassuring answer.

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