For much of the pandemic, one way New York City has tried to slow the coronavirus’s spread is by offering free hotel rooms to infected people who cannot easily isolate themselves from those they live with.
But the sheer number of people who are sick with the Omicron variant may be overwhelming the hotel program — both for the general public and another for people in homeless shelters.
Inside one Brooklyn shelter this week, 11 women who had tested positive for the virus were crowded into a small room furnished with only a few mattresses on the floor and several chairs, two of the women said.
Four people who tried to take advantage of the main hotel-quarantine system said on Thursday that they had either waited days before getting a room, given up and paid for one themselves or been stuck on hold for hours on a city hotline without anyone ever picking up. Others have posted messages on Twitter about their own long waits.
“I requested a hotel over 5 days ago & they still have not arranged transportation for me,” Brittny Gaston of Brooklyn tweeted on Friday morning. Ms. Gaston, 26, a medical assistant, said in an interview that when she finally spoke to someone, she was told she did not qualify for the program because she no longer needed to quarantine, even though she still had Covid-19 symptoms and two people in her household had underlying health issues. “I really wanted to cry on the phone,” she said.
As the number of new virus cases in the city has skyrocketed to 130,000 so far this week, from 16,000 during the first week of December, the city unit that runs the main hotel-quarantine program has declined to say whether there was a wait for rooms.
The hotel program, which the city calls “the only free, major hotel isolation program in the country,” started in June 2020 with 1,200 rooms. A spokesman for the Test and Trace Corps, the unit of the city Health and Hospitals agency that runs the program, said on Friday that nearly 30,000 people had used the hotels so far.
It was not clear how many rooms are involved in the program now, but the spokesman wrote in an email that demand for the hotels had “quickly increased” as Omicron spread and that two more hotels were being added this week, with more to follow if needed.
Cathy Guo, 29, a New York University graduate student who lives with three roommates, said that after two of them tested positive for the virus shortly before Christmas, all four spent many hours apiece on hold with the city hotline without reaching anyone.
Finally, Ms. Guo said, on Monday — about four days after the second roommate tested positive — one of the four was transferred to a line where a recording said there were 150 people ahead of her on hold. Three hours later, a dispatcher picked up and said the city would send someone to bring the sick roommate to a hotel.
“They still haven’t come,” Ms. Guo said early Friday.
Calls to the hotline on Friday were answered by a recording asking that the caller leave a message.
Monte Monteleagre, who lives in Manhattan, described a different telephone ordeal that yielded a similarly fruitless result.
After testing positive for the virus on Dec. 18 and calling to inquire about the hotel program, he was put on hold for more than 90 minutes while being forced to push a button every few minutes to keep his place on the line.
“I missed the prompt once and had to start over from the back of the line,” he said.
When Mr. Monteleagre, 26, finally spoke to someone, he was told he would get a call back within two days. It took five days for the call to come, he said. By then, he and his roommate had made other arrangements.
Violetta Barberis, 47, who said she tested positive for the virus on Dec. 20 and whose husband has a severely compromised immune system, wanted to get a hotel room immediately after learning her result. She said she was told she would have to wait 48 hours.
“We paid out of pocket, which is super annoying but it had to be done,” said Ms. Barberis, who lives in Lower Manhattan. “I can imagine that for people who had less financial flexibility, it would be impossible.”
Those seeking refuge from homeless shelters have experienced their own frustrations.
The shelter system has a separate network of hotels it rents quarantine rooms from. On Wednesday, the city Department of Homeless Services said there were 400 vacant quarantine and isolation beds available in those hotels.
But at the Broadway House women’s shelter in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, two women who said they had tested positive described being crowded into a small room known as the “library” with a total of 11 women in it, some of whom were kept there for several days. Both women said they had been told there were no hotel rooms available.
Some of the women in the library slept on bare mattresses. One, Anna Ortiz, who has multiple disabilities, was less fortunate.
“They put me on the floor,” she said. “There were only three or four mattresses in the library room.”
The floor is uncarpeted. Ms. Ortiz, 51, who has chronic asthma and heart problems and uses a walker, said she was not given a blanket or pillow.
“I felt like I was being treated like an animal,” she said.
Another woman, who said she stayed in the room Tuesday and Wednesday night, sent a video showing four women sprawled uncomfortably in hard-backed chairs, one of them with her head down on a desk. The women’s belongings were heaped in garbage bags on the floor.
“It’s appalling, the way as human beings — and as a taxpayer — that we have to live,” said the second woman, who is 62, works at U.P.S. and also has chronic asthma. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by shelter workers.
The Department of Homeless Services did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
Deborah Diamant, the director of legal affairs for the Coalition for the Homeless, said the agency should have anticipated the increased demand for hotel rooms. The weekly number of new Covid-19 cases in city shelters jumped to 281 this week from 36 in late November, according to city data.
The agency previously came under fire for moving thousands of people from temporary hotel lodgings back to dormlike shelters in the summer despite the continuing threat of infection.
“D.H.S. should have been prepared for this,” Ms. Diamant said on Thursday. “They weren’t and here they are scrambling.” She noted that the city is legally obligated to provide shelter residents a bed with a clean mattress and a lockable place to store their belongings.
Ms. Ortiz and the second woman who was forced to stay in the library both said they were moved on Thursday to a hotel in Queens where each has a roommate. Ms. Ortiz said she was disgusted with how the city had treated them.
“I would never do that to my worst enemy,” she said.