As COVID-19 continues to place strain on healthcare workers, McMaster University provides isolated and affordable accommodations

For many healthcare workers, the struggle to keep society safe has come at a personal cost. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers have faced an increased risk of infection, as well as the emotional impacts of dealing with this public health crisis.

Offering residence rooms to healthcare workers was a way for McMaster University to provide support to those on the frontlines. The aim of this program is to provide frontline healthcare workers with a safe and affordable place to self-isolate.

As these workers are at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19, living away from home for a period of time helps them to protect their families.

According to Laurie Ham, manager of conference and event services at McMaster, an organization heavily involved with this program is the Thrive Group. As Ham explained, the Thrive Group is a non-profit organization that has been helping to connect McMaster with healthcare workers who are interested in accessing this program.

“They receive the initial inquiry and they work with people interested,” said Ham.

The Thrive Group’s Vice-President of Business Strategy, Vickie Baird, reflected on the importance of having this program in place.

“We knew that there was some anxiety that these healthcare workers would bring the virus home to [their] families, so we wanted to be able to give them an affordable option that would allow them to stay somewhere safe during their work term,” said Baird.

The program, which launched on Jan. 20, allows healthcare workers to book a stay in McKay Hall at an affordable rate, with the option to order meals to their rooms as well.

“We had heard that [healthcare workers] really did want some options, other than calling a local hotel and paying a hundred plus dollars per night,” Baird explained.

“We had heard that [healthcare workers] really did want some options, other than calling a local hotel and paying a hundred plus dollars per night,” Baird explained.

Ham explained that McKay Hall was well-suited for this program.

“The building has just completed a major modernization of all of the washrooms throughout, so it makes it a perfect opportunity to have [healthcare workers stay in] a safe, comfortable setting,” said Ham.

Healthcare workers can stay at McKay Hall from three to 14 days, a policy which was created to accommodate as many workers as possible. Baird added that McMaster would be willing to consider extension requests.

As of Feb. 4, the program has received nine inquiries from healthcare workers, although none have registered yet. According to Baird, healthcare workers may be waiting to see if their employers would cover the cost, or they may be unsure about the meal plan, as it isn’t designed with long shift schedules in mind.

“I think it's still early. Even though we launched the program two weeks ago, it takes a while for the information to filter through,” Baird said.

Along with space reserved for healthcare workers, McMaster’s campus is still inhabited by a small number of students currently living in residence. To ensure effective social distancing and other safety protocols, Ham highlighted that healthcare workers and students are isolated from one another.

“It's entirely separate. It's a separate building; it's a separate series of standard operating procedures and protocols,” said Ham.

A number of McMaster departments have been involved to create this initiative. From parking to hospitality services, it takes a village to bring the community together.

“To be able to come up with a comprehensive [program] requires participation from [many] people,” said Ham.

Overall, Ham described this program as an opportunity for McMaster to give back to Hamilton’s healthcare workers.

“We were able to work through a plan to demonstrate the university's commitment to supporting these dedicated, passionate, relentless professionals who are caring for everyone else to make sure people stay well,” said Ham.

Please note: This is a developing story and this article will be updated as more information arises.

McMaster is requiring students to move out of residence by this Saturday at 4 p.m., as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads and calls for social distancing increase across the province.

In a release sent out the morning of March 17, McMaster announced immediate changes to support social distancing within residences. Until the move-out deadline, guests will not be permitted in residences, and common rooms and game rooms will be closed.

In order to appropriately check-out, students must complete a mandatory online residence status update form through the McMaster Housing Portal. The form asks students to select a move-out time between Tuesday, March 17 and Saturday March 21 at 4 p.m.  

Before this release, the university suspended all in-person classes and exams on Friday, March 13. Many classes are being moved online, and professors are required to contact students by Wednesday to let them know how their courses will proceed for the remainder of the term. 

McMaster’s 12 on-campus residences house almost 3,600 students. It remains to be seen how the university will support students in their transition from residence.

A room in residence costs between $5,800 and $9,000 for a year. The residence contract requires students to move out of residence the day after their last exam, which can be anywhere from April 13 to April 29. 

In the March 17 release, McMaster committed to providing “financial consideration for your shortened stay in residence” to students who check out of residence on or before the designated move-out deadline. It is not yet clear what financial consideration entails. According to the frequently asked questions column on the Residence COVID-19 Updates page, the University does not currently have any information regarding refunds for meal, residence, and parking fees. Food plan budgets will, however, carry over into next year. Information is expected to be updated soon. 

The university may make exceptions for students who are unable to return home due to travel restrictions, however, students need to submit an application through the McMaster Housing Portal in order to be eligible to remain in residence. According to the release, the only students eligible to remain in residence are international students and out-of-province students who need extra time to move out.

The statement did not make note of students who face additional barriers, which may prevent them from being able to complete the remainder of their academic terms, should they be forced to move out from residence. 

Hi Calvin -- students in those circumstances would need to speak with Housing about their specific situation.

— McMaster University (@McMasterU) March 17, 2020

Students may be unable to return to their family homes due to unsafe living situations or unsupportive families. Additionally, students may not have access to wifi and other resources necessary to complete their course work. As the provincial government requires all public libraries in Ontario close under a declaration of emergency, it remains to be seen how the university will support students without access to the resources necessary to engage in online courses.

Update: March 20, 2020: While international students and out-of-province students are pre-approved to stay in residence, students with extenuating circumstances, such as those in unsafe living situations, can apply to extend their stay.

"Students who have extenuating circumstances may request special consideration from the Residence Admissions office to extend their stay.  These are approved on a case-by-case basis," wrote Holly Gibson, manager of marketing and communications for housing and conference services, in an emailed statement.

Gibson also confirmed that all food services except for Centro are now closed.

It is yet to be determined whether students who stay in residence will remain in their current rooms.

"Once we determine the number of students who will need to stay on campus, we will make plans with a focus on student safety, social distancing and in alignment with Public Health recommendations," stated Gibson.

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Photo C/O Spotted at Mac Facebook Page

By William Li, Contributor

CW: Racism

On Jan. 27, somebody with too much time on their hands decided to put fake quarantine notices on a residence room door, complete with McMaster University letterhead and yellow caution tape. McMaster quickly issued a clarifying statement—no, the coronavirus had not arrived on campus, and no, the notices are not legitimate.

The stunt was deeply insensitive to those who have been and are being affected by coronavirus, though it was not unique. Somebody at Queen’s University decided to throw a coronavirus-themed party complete with surgical masks and biohazard decor. Additionally, there have been numerous reported incidents of Chinese people, and East Asians more broadly, being stereotyped as dirty and diseased.

Outrage in response to these incidents is understandably justified. The Wuhan coronavirus, which the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency, has already killed hundreds and infected tens of thousands. These aforementioned incidents expose a stunning disregard for the anguish and anxiety that many ethnic Chinese folks are experiencing. Our traumas are rendered as props for amusement; our bodies are reduced to objects of stigma.

However, outrage alone is inadequate. Likewise, thoughts and prayers, while appreciated, should not be used as an excuse to avoid more substantial discourse and action. Instead, we must do more.

For one, McMaster Daily Newscoronavirus frequently asked questions would be significantly more helpful if it at least acknowledged the racism on campus. Secondly, alongside calling out racism, we must also critically examine why coronavirus is a serious issue, so that students are better able to discuss it without being dismissive or discriminatory.

A fake sign put up as a prank in a residence hall. The original photo was posted on Spotted at Mac, a confession page for McMaster students.

Some students have suggested that media hoopla is triggering an overreaction—that, based on the numbers, coronavirus might even be less lethal than the flu. However, this unfairly dismisses legitimate concerns.

Firstly, as students, we must refrain from medical hot takes until more information becomes available. Currently, nobody knows how accurate the Chinese government’s numbers are given their history of dishonesty, such as during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, experts have cautioned that coronavirus figures are likely higher than what officials are willing, or able, to report. For example, many have questioned the low figures for Xinjiang, especially given the crowded conditions in the concentration camps holding Uyghur Muslims.

However, we should not refrain from criticizing the structural injustices that created this crisis. The silencing and subsequent death of whistleblower Li Wenliang shows how the Chinese Communist Party, with its toxic nationalism and intolerance of dissent, has created a deficient governance system that prioritizes submission to authority over justice and transparency. The anguish in China—desperate people crowding overwhelmed hospitals, others dying in the streets—makes criticism essential to ensuring government accountability for the suffering.

Understanding these circumstances—the lack of verifiable information and the structural injustices at play—provides crucial context. Both create uncertainty, which then encourages extra caution.

For example, China has led the way in travel restrictions, quarantining first Wuhan, then nearly the entire province of Hubei. Other countries soon followed: Singapore, Taiwan, Australia and dozens more have since banned arrivals from Mainland China. Although the efficacy of travel restrictions is debatable, such dramatic measures show a desire to take precautions against an unknown disease with no cure or vaccine. 

On campus, some students have taken precautions as well, most visibly with wearing face masks. Unfortunately, mask wearers have since become targets for stigmatization, as if everybody wearing one is either infected with coronavirus or being overly dramatic. In reality, mask-wearing predates coronavirus, and is a versatile East Asian cultural practice, such as with K-pop inspired fashion accessories or symbols of popular resistance in Hong Kong

During flu season (or international epidemics), wearing a mask is also basic social etiquette in keeping your germs to yourself—nobody likes being stuck in a bus or lecture hall next to somebody coughing like a trombone, mouth uncovered and germs spewing everywhere. Surgical masks also offer basic protection against liquid droplets, thus making them a sensible complement to handwashing. Next time you see somebody wearing one on campus, please be considerate of the cultural and hygienic reasons for wearing masks, instead of responding with fear or ridicule.

In the coming weeks, please be mindful of what others, especially those of us with friends or family in China, are going through. Call out racism when you see it, but don’t stop there. Take time to critically analyze the systemic problems behind the coronavirus outbreak, though refrain from conflating criticism of the Chinese government with denigrations of China or Chinese people. We should all be outraged at the public health disaster in China; we must simultaneously be supportive of fellow students who are negatively impacted. Racism and ignorance detract from these efforts, and thus we must resist efforts to divide us during times of crisis.


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