Hotels, In-Law Apartments, and Basements: How Doctors Are Quarantining during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Should they stay or should they go? Worried about exposing their loved ones to the virus, local healthcare workers face an impossible choice.

Photo via Getty Images/South_agency

One of the few pieces of normalcy many of us are clinging to these days is the comfort of our own homes. We may wish our city digs were more spacious, or that our friends could stop by, but at the end of the day those of us staying put can cook in our familiar kitchens and sleep in our own beds, made with the particular number of pillows we prefer. For some local healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, though, home is less a sanctuary than a place that fills them with anxiety about whether they’ll expose their loved ones to the virus.

Some are taking off their scrubs before they walk in the house, washing their hands until their skin is raw, and hoping for the best. But others are choosing to pack up their things and quarantine away from their immediate families—particularly children or immunocompromised partners—in short-term housing, hotels, and even trailers parked outside their homes.

It’s an agonizing decision, both from an emotional and a financial perspective, but it’s one real estate agent Mary Gillach is hearing about a lot more lately from her many clients in the medical field. She’s offered to let some doctors rent homes she’s recently sold (whose owners have already moved out) at a discounted rate, and has referred others to short-term rental options, such as a building in Medford with furnished one-bedroom apartments for $2,000 a month—less than Boston rates, but still a hefty price when you’re already responsible for another rent or mortgage payment. “It’s harder for doctors than you might think,” says Gillach, principal of the Gillach Group at William Raveis. “There are not a lot of choices. And they can’t really couch surf.”

It’s a problem internal medicine doctor Savan Patel, who practices at hospitals in Norwood and Plymouth, New Hampshire, knows all too well. When coronavirus hit Massachusetts in full force last month, he knew right away he’d need to leave the 900-square-foot Brookline condo he shares with his pregnant wife, who has been in remission from leukemia for seven years. So for the past four and a half weeks, Patel has been staying at two hotels 130 miles apart. Though the hospitals coordinated with the facilities to give him a heavily discounted nightly rate, he’s still working more hours each month to help cover the cost. The living situation has forced him to do some other math, including figuring out how much food can fit in a mini fridge, how early can he check in to drop his things off and get to the hospital on time, and, since the couple shares one car, how often to bring groceries to his wife. Waving hello through the building’s glass door when he drops off the bags, he says, “is the extent of our relationship right now.” It won’t get much better when the couple, who recently purchased a larger home for their growing family, moves in June; once settled, Patel plans to live in the basement indefinitely.

On the other end of the spectrum are radiologist Henry Su and oncologist Kimmie Ng. As parents to two young children, the Westwood doctors decided to ride out the COVID-19 storm together early on—although they often wondered what they would do if one of them got sick during this pandemic. Two weeks ago, when Ng came down with a fever, they found out. “It was really problematic,” Su says. “I had to call in sick for the week so I could watch them. And I can only do that so much, before all of a sudden, it’s like you have nobody that’s actually running the hospital.” Luckily, they had an in-law suite built into their single-family home a couple of years ago, so Ng was able to isolate herself there, though the kids still came to knock on the door and check on their mom every so often.

Thankfully, Ng’s COVID-19 test came back negative, and she was able to move back into the main house after a week. But Su says they still worry about what would happen if one of them did contract the virus. “If she tests positive, then there’s a high chance that I’m positive. And then what do you do with the kids?”