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'I was going to sleep in a tent in the garage' | Wash U houses front line workers who can't return home

Doctors get keys from the mailbox. Food is left at the front door. This is how Wash U is giving front line workers peace of mind while fighting the coronavirus

UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo. — With classes canceled and summer programs postponed, Washington University has transformed multiple buildings to house doctors, nurses and first responders working to fight the coronavirus.

"It's definitely a departure from my own apartment, but it's very convenient," Dr. Adithya Bhat, an anesthesiologist, said of the temporary housing he's used for several weeks. "I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever. They have been very accommodating."

Bhat is one of about 50 people currently using the Wash U facilities.

The Knight Executive Education and Conference Center traditionally hosts seminars and conferences. The hotel rooms now house medical professionals who are trying to protect their families from the coronavirus.

"I was talking to my girlfriend, and it really does feel like college again living in a dorm room," Bhat said. "Especially since I’m on the same campus as I was many years ago now. It definitely brings back memories."

While it might bring back memories for some, Dr. Dedric Carter, the Vice-Chancellor of Operations and Technology Transfer, said he's never seen anything like this.

"I definitely can say that this is historic," Dr. Carter said.

Carter oversaw the transition, which required new thinking for a new problem. 

"In some ways, we know how to do these things: we know how to pivot and we know how to help," Carter said. "That’s what we do."

One way they are helping is by delivering meals. Bhat — and the other guests — get meals delivered, all via a contactless process.

"They'll put your meals on the door handle and knock on the door. Once they leave, you can get your food," Bhat said.

At The Lofts on Delmar Boulevard, Carter said they had to figure out a contactless way to get people in and out of rooms. People can contact organizers over email, and a key is left for them in the mailbox. When they choose to return to their own homes, they can drop the keep in a box on the way out.

"It really is making a difference family-by-family, and we can hear that from the reports from the people who have been staying with us. They say, 'You know I was going to sleep in a tent in the garage,'" Carter said.

Carter said they're following the lead of city and county leaders, planning to keep their additional housing open through May 15. If the situation worsens, they can keep the rooms open longer and house up to 345 people.

The Wash U housing helps limit the spread of coronavirus while also giving front line workers piece of mind that they are protecting the people they left at home. 

"It’ll be nice to be reunited again," Bhat said of the time away from his girlfriend. "That’s what I look forward to most.

Contact reporter Sara Machi on Facebook and Twitter.

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