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Big changes coming to Duval County hurricane shelters amid pandemic

Separate shelters will be open to those who tested positive for COVID-19 or are flagged by screening

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As hurricane season looms, the Duval County School Board was provided an update Wednesday on how severe storm shelters will operate as concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic continue.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts between 13 and 19 named storms this season, with six to 10 of them becoming hurricanes. Three to six of the storms are predicted to reach Category 3 severity or higher.

Duval County School Police Director Micheal Edwards presented the four-phase school strategy employed by emergency management agencies, with new alterations aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus in the event of dangerous weather.

The first phase traditionally involved the training of select principals on the protocols for emergency situations but this year, Edwards said all principals will receive the training.

Phase two involves the preparation of shelters including stocking them with supplies and positioning sandbag barriers. The process takes three to four days to complete.

The third phase, the management of the shelters, includes numerous modified protocols to account for the threat of COVID-19.

Entrants to the shelters will be screened by emergency management officials for any exposure to the novel coronavirus.

The screening will include a temperature check and a questionnaire asking whether the entrant has traveled out of the country, tested positive for COVID-19 or been exposed to anyone who has tested positive to COVID-19 over the last 14 days.

The total capacity of Duval County’s designated hurricane shelter facilities is 17,250, though the number of people sheltered in the previous three major storm events (Matthew, Irma and Dorian) did not reach 4,000.

The space allotted for each person or family is usually 20 square feet, but this year it’s been expanded to 60 square feet to maintain CDC distancing guidelines. This reduces the total capacity of Duval’s shelters by 60%, according to Edwards.

Emergency personnel will also provide hospital masks to each person in the shelter and families will be allowed to gather.

Any person who is flagged by the screening, or is known to be among those at higher risk of spreading the virus will be sheltered in two designated facilities, one on each side of the St. Johns River.

Edwards said prior to shelters opening, those who tested positive or are high-risk will be asked to shelter-in-place. If their home or location is considered to be an inadequate shelter, they will be directed to one of the two designated shelters.

Edwards said there will be an isolated area in each of the hurricane shelters for who tested positive, which will be used in the event that the severe storm system is one to three hours away and there’s not enough time to transport them.

Separate shelters will be provided to those with special medical needs not related to the coronavirus, but those will be available only to those who register prior to the event.

Phase four of the plan occurs after the severe weather event and involves deep cleaning and restoring the facility to normal.

A new protocol this year, Edwards said, is performing the deep cleaning operation twice.

More information on hurricane shelters can be found here.