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As Natural Disasters Strike, a New Fear: Relief Shelters May Spread Virus

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“Being in a motel would give them more distance,” Dr. Monto said. “The more people you have, the more likely that one of them might be affected.”

The federal government’s Thursday announcement that states can seek federal reimbursement for the cost of sheltering people individually — provided it’s at the direction of a public health official — could help address that concern, assuming the rooms are available. Keeping people out of group shelters “may be necessary in this Public Health Emergency to save lives,” the agency said in a fact sheet, “as well as to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe.”

Mr. Riggen said the Red Cross would try to get people into hotels when the risk of contagion is particularly high. Following an apartment fire this month in Jacksonville, Fla., a state with a large number of coronavirus cases, the organization put 45 people in hotels on the advice of local health officials, he said.

In the meantime, the Red Cross is continuing to rely on shelters, but with a few changes.

Its new guidelines call for taking the temperature of everyone coming into shelters, whether evacuees or volunteers, as well as checking for other symptoms of COVID-19. Once inside, everyone is supposed to be checked three times a day. Other steps include hand-washing stations, along with “enhanced cleaning of all hard surfaces.”

People are also told not to pull their cots together.

The Red Cross has already applied its new guidelines at two shelters, according to Mr. Riggen. One is in Hawaii, which was hit this week by flooding. That shelter housed 150 people on Tuesday night.

The other was at a school in Salt Lake City, which was set up following a 5.7-magnitude earthquake on Wednesday. A Red Cross spokeswoman, Greta Gustafson, said Friday that no one had stayed at the shelter. Workers at the shelter denied entry Thursday to a photographer for The New York Times.

“We are not aware of any positive tests” for Covid-19 at either of the two shelters, Ms. Gustafson said.

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