Looking at the precious new life in front of him, new father and nurse Jason Odhner knew he had to make a sacrifice. In order to protect his wife and newborn son, he would temporarily have to leave them.
As COVID-19 made its way to the U.S., the Phoenix-area ICU nurse knew it was only a matter of time before he would come face-to-face with the rapidly spreading virus.
Having served as a nurse in West Africa during the Ebola epidemic, the 43-year-old health care professional saw first-hand how quickly a disease can spread and the importance of taking every measure to contain it.
With his wife, his retirement-age in-laws and his newborn son at home, he wasn’t willing to take the chance of bringing the virus home.
After some particularly high-risk exposures, Jason moved into a rental property he owns just a few doors down from the home he shares with his family.
He shared the home with another ICU nurse who did not want to risk spreading the virus to her pregnant sister, who she was living with at the time.
The two called the temporary shelter a “Frontline House,” and set house rules such as leaving potentially contaminated scrubs at the door, wiping down surfaces regularly and posting their temperatures on a whiteboard daily.
There was a commitment to look out for each other’s emotional and spiritual health, and should either of them get sick, not requiring hospital care, they agreed to care for the other.
“As nurses, we’re used to making decisions from evidence, and we find ourselves at a time were there isn’t a lot of best practices,” Jason said. “We just have to guess and make it up and be patient with ourselves.”
Jason started a Facebook group to share the #FrontlineHouses concept and connect hospital workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic with property owners who have vacant rentals.
Within a few days, the #FrontlineHouses group had more than 50 members. Today, it has more than 140.
On March 25, Matthew Castleberry posted in the group, saying he canceled all the reservations at his Airbnb near Banner – University Medical Center in Midtown Phoenix to make it available to a nurse or doctor working in the ER or ICU.
“I am looking to aid a person who perhaps has a family at home they are trying to protect when they are putting themselves at risk,” Castleberry said.
Jason has spent a lot of time moderating the Facebook group to ensure fair pricing. He made economic justice a pinnacle of the initiative, letting members know, “We will not tolerate disaster capitalism.”
Leases are capped at no more than $400 a month, but some spaces have been offered for free.
“There have been a number of people who have recognized this is not a time to chase profits,” Jason said.
When hospice chaplain Diane D’Angelo saw what her friend Jason was doing in Phoenix, she was inspired to create a #FrontlineHouses community in Denver.
Unable to meet, Diane’s Quaker congregation decided to convert its south Denver meeting hall into a home-away-from-home for front line health care workers as they fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Mountain View Friends Meeting members converted their vacant, church-like meeting hall into three bedrooms where front line workers can stay free of charge.
“I think that the important thing here isn’t that the housing is free. It’s not really about that,” Diane said. “You have to have a permanent residence, proof of medical insurance and employment. It’s to show support for the people taking care of us so they have one less thing to worry about after working at a COVID unit all day – not bringing it home to their families.”
In treating patients with COVID-19, Jason has witnessed how social inequity can affect public health.
He recently treated a woman in her 40s with diabetes and kidney disease, who has been without health insurance for years. Now, she is on a ventilator from COVID-19.
“I hope that as the economy is able to reopen, we open in a way that doesn’t leave so many people behind,” Jason said. “Poverty is the No. 1 risk factor for premature death. I think the situation has laid bare a lot of inequities that have existed for a long time. From a public health perspective, as doctors and nurses we need to have the courage to speak up about that.”
Jason admits the decision to live apart from his family has not only been difficult, but a bit messy.
After going two weeks with minimal exposure, Jason and his wife decided he should move back in. As the hospitals started getting more COVID-19 cases, they thought it would be best if he moved back out.
“The concern, and I think what a lot of people are wrestling with, is there is a lot of second-guessing of one’s self because we want to do what’s right for the people around us, but we can do harm by leaving and by staying,” Jason said. “I don’t want to expose my family to the virus, but I could also do harm by not being there to help with the baby.”
In creating #FrontlineHouses, Jason wants other health care workers to know they are not alone in making these difficult decisions.
“In times when it isn’t clear what the right thing to do is, it’s important to have a sense of community,” he said. “These times are messy and complicated for all of us.”
For now, Jason is grateful to have a job that provides for his family and is looking forward to the day he can once again hold his son.