BALDWIN -- District Health Department No. 10 and Lake County officials have entered into an agreement to allow the health department to use a facility in Baldwin to house COVID-19 isolation patients.

The Lake County Board of Commissioners approved the authorization for the county to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the health department regarding the use of the former Residential Reentry Program facility at a meeting in April.

"We have had some discussions with them, and their interest has been accelerating over the prospect of needing it soon," Lake County Administrator Tobi Lake said.

Karen Ripke, emergency preparedness specialist with the health department, said the department has looked at the possibility of using the facility since it is currently empty and not being used for anything.

The facility has a kitchen, if needed, showers, clean bedding and separate rooms to keep the residents apart from one another, and there is an outside area where they can go to get some fresh air without leaving the campus and venturing into the community, she said.

"There are a lot of unknowns, right now," Ripke said. "Our cases remain pretty low, but by August, we don't know what might happen.

"If there is an uptick in positive cases and the number of those needing isolation is more than the current system can provide, we would use other facilities first, but we are ready to go with the RRP facility if needed," she said. "If we were to see an outbreak of cases among homeless people, there would be the possibility we would need that facility."

According to Ripke, the health department is responsible for helping those who test positive for the virus to serve out their isolation period.

"If someone is mandated to self-isolate, but can not do so at home for some reason -- if they have other family members they don't want to expose, if they don't have a way to isolate at home, or if they are homeless -- we are responsible for helping them finish out their isolation," Ripke said. "We are working with the local hotels right now, but if other facilities become overwhelmed, then the RRP would be available to take in some of those isolation cases."

Ripke added that the RRP could be used to house patients from outside the county, if needed, as well.

"If there is a spike in the number of cases outside of Lake County needing isolation, and other facilities become overwhelmed, the RRP could take in some of those cases," she said. "It would provide a safe spot for them to stay where they are not exposing others in the community to the virus," she said.

Some BOC members expressed concern for the safety of the surrounding community if people from the outside are brought into the facility.

Ripke said there will be strict safety protocols in place to protect, not only those housed at the facility, but those on staff and in the surrounding community, as well.

"Those in isolation would not be allowed to leave the facility until their isolation period is completed," Ripke said. "If they have been mandated to isolate, and they leave the facility, then law enforcement would be notified. We would go through the proper legal steps to enforce the isolation period."

"Anything the residents need would be brought to the facility by community health workers," she added. "If they need a prescription filled, if they need a change of clothing, whatever it might be, would be brought to the facility and left outside the door for staff to pick up."

Ripke said no one would be entering or leaving the facility accept the staff, which would be health department personnel.

Staff will be wearing N95 masks, and gloves for protection.

Residents will be given surgical masks to wear, and there will be regular, routine cleaning and sanitizing of all areas according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

In addition, there will be security personnel on site 24/7. Staff will walk the halls at regular intervals checking on residents to ensure they are okay, or if they need anything, and if someone wants to go outside, they must clear it with the staff first, she said.

"Our goal is to not have to use the facility, but if we see a spike in cases and need to, we can activate the plan and have the facility up and running in three to four days," Ripke said. "If there is the potential for the cases to increase in late August, we will be ready to go."

Lake said there would be no additional expense to the county for the use of the facility.

They would continue to cover routine utility costs that they always pay.

Ripke said the health department will provide for all meals for the residents, and food and staffing would be funded by grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The RRP facility, opened in 1991, housed parole violators who were required to participate in the reentry program as a condition of their parole.

In October 2019, the Lake County BOC approved a resolution to sever the contract between the county and the Michigan Department of Corrections because the number in inmates being housed at the facility had dropped so low, it was costing the county to continue to house them.