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Northeastern Joins Growing List Of Colleges To House First Responders

Northeastern West Village. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Northeastern West Village. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Boston-area colleges and universities are beginning to offer dorm space to medical professionals and first responders unable or unwilling to return home because they want to protect their families from COVID-19.

Northeastern University is making a residence hall available to 135 Boston police officers and emergency medical technicians.

"This is for first responders who need to be self-isolating and reduce the risk of exposing someone at home, like seniors or someone with underlying health conditions," Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said at a press conference Thursday.

The dorm, called West Village E, is off Huntington Avenue with single occupancy rooms. A Northeastern spokesperson said it has been prepped and cleaned, and first responders could move in as early as Friday. Northeastern is providing the space. The city of Boston is expected to sign contracts for laundry and cleaning.

Dr. Joshua Barocas, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center, said it was "crucial" for colleges and universities to open their dorms to first responders and health care professionals.

"We don't want to send people back home that might be exposing loved ones inadvertently," he said.

Boston University is offering 75 rooms to staff at Pine Street Inn, according to Walsh. Emmanuel College, MassArt and Simmons University are offering housing for health care providers at Beth Israel, Brigham and Women's and Children's hospitals.

Massachusetts has eight times as many dorm beds as it does hospital beds. Tufts University Associate Professor of Mathematics Moon Duchin said in a webinar Wednesday that the state has 162,215 dorm beds to 20,882 hospital beds. Duchin has done research to show which colleges and universities were best located to accommodate increasing numbers of hospital patients.

Suffolk University led the way among Boston-area colleges and universities by opening a dorm to homeless people.

"That is absolutely heroic and the university should be commended on that," said  Barocas. "I hope that other colleges and universities follow suit very quickly."

Hampshire College has also offered a dorm to house COVID-19-positive homeless people who are not sick enough to be hospitalized.

Harvard University has offered the use of the Harvard Square Hotel to the Cambridge Health Alliance and the city of Cambridge to house health care workers and first responders.

"This is not the time to turn your back on those that have helped you for years with the needs  of your students and your community. It's the time to step up and help them in their time of need."

Anthony Monaco, president of Tufts University

Tufts University Wednesday said it finalized agreements with Cambridge Health Alliance, Tufts Medical Center and the cities of Somerville and Medford to offer dorms for recovering patients, first responders and medical personnel.

"We were one of the first universities in Massachusetts to have a COVID-positive student," said Tufts President Anthony Monaco in a telephone interview Wednesday. "So we had to get our act together very quickly on the logistics of how to separate different populations."

At the same time, Monaco said, Tufts was approached by Tufts Medical Center, Cambridge Health Alliance and the cities of Somerville and Medford with several requests for support.

The university will house Cambridge Health Alliance patients, including COVID-19-positive patients who no longer need critical care but must remain isolated.

Tufts will also house medical personnel and first responders from Somerville, Medford, Cambridge Health Alliance and Tufts Medical Center who cannot return home to potentially vulnerable family members in high-risk groups, or who are themselves awaiting test results or have tested positive for COVID-19.

Monaco said he expected the campus to receive people as early as the end of the week.

"Thinking about how many times our communities have come to our aid when our students are ill or they need hospitalization, those are the first responders they're asking us to house," said Monaco. "This is not the time to turn your back on those that have helped you for years with the needs  of your students and your community. It's the time to step up and help them in their time of need."

First responders and medical personnel will be housed in small groups so that healthy workers can be separated from the sick. COVID-19 patients will be housed in standard dorms.

Students remaining on campus are housed in a separate part of campus. Patients will not be allowed to walk the grounds. Tufts is donating the dorm space.

The university said Wednesday it would need to have the dorm rooms back six weeks before the first students return, once a decision to re-open the campus has been made.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the homeless population who could be housed at Suffolk University. We regret the error.

This article was originally published on April 09, 2020.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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