47 test positive for coronavirus at Sonoma County’s largest homeless center in Santa Rosa

The outbreak follows a smaller cluster of cases at Sam Jones Hall in January during the peak of the pandemic.|

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Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

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A total of 47 residents at the Sam Jones L. Hall homeless shelter in Santa Rosa have tested positive for the coronavirus, making up about three-quarters of a recent spike in COVID-19 cases among Sonoma County’s homeless population, officials said Thursday.

The outbreak at the county’s largest shelter comes amid a broader uptick in local COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, predominantly among unvaccinated people.

Jennielynn Holmes, who leads homeless services at Catholic Charities, the nonprofit managing the shelter, said the latest outbreak is only the second time the coronavirus has been detected at Sam Jones, following a smaller cluster of cases in January during the peak of the pandemic.

Catholic Charities became aware that the virus had potentially reentered the shelter last Friday when two individuals who had been staying their tested positive for COVID-19. City officials suspect the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus is responsible for the outbreak.

“The delta variant is reacting with the homeless population much differently than the original COVID situation,” Holmes said. “We had very few cases for the entire pandemic.”

As of Friday, almost a third of the 153 residents currently staying at the shelter have now tested positive.

Countywide, 62 homeless people have tested positive within the past two weeks, according to Kathryn Pack, a manager for the county health department’s epidemiology team. That’s a 48% jump in the homeless population’s total COVID-19 caseload, which now stands at 191 since the start of the pandemic.

The recent surge means about 7% of the roughly 2,700 homeless people in the county have contracted the virus, mirroring the share of positive tests among the overall county population.

The shelter outbreak reflects an emergent trend at this point in the pandemic: The recent upswing of coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, as elsewhere, is predominantly affecting people who have not been vaccinated — a pool of about 110,000 individuals locally, or about 25% of the vaccine-eligible population.

Homeless people have been among the hardest to reach in the monthslong inoculation campaign. No records exist to say how many remain unvaccinated, authorities said.

And homeless individuals are at particularly high-risk of becoming critically ill with COVID-19 since they are more likely to have underlying health issues. At Sam Jones, just one homeless resident has been hospitalized, Holmes said, and no one else with a positive test has severe symptoms.

The majority of residents who tested positive had not received COVID-19 vaccines, Holmes said.

Still, at least 10 of the 47 positive cases were among those who were fully vaccinated, a concerning sign as studies show the delta variant is more transmissible and may be more resistant to vaccines than the original strain of the virus.

Sonoma County Health Services and St. Joseph Health have tested all residents and staff at the shelter. There are still 20 pending tests, and the city expects to have results by this week.

The nonprofit is quarantining those who test positive in its 60-bed shelter annex, which it completed in January. Residents who return a negative test or are still awaiting results are staying in the 150-bed main hall.

Holmes said all residents are encouraged to stay put during the outbreak and that no one who has tested positive or is waiting on results has left the shelter.

Health officials have started contract tracing efforts, and testing will continue at the shelter about once a week to manage any potential spread.

Sam Jones will pause accepting new residents for at least two weeks after the last confirmed positive test result. That could slow the city’s effort to clear local homeless encampments since they will not be able to offer people beds at the shelter.

Throughout most of the pandemic, the shelter had been operating fewer beds to allow for social distancing. But over the past few months, Catholic Charities has slowly ramped up to full capacity as vaccines became more available and the nonprofit relocated people from a separate, emergency shelter at the Sandman Hotel, which closed last month.

The 153 people currently staying at the shelter account for about 70% of total bed space.

When accepting new residents, Catholic Charities does a symptom screening but doesn’t require a negative COVID-19 test, Holmes said. And it doesn’t turn people away if they aren’t vaccinated.

To ensure residents’ safety, the nonprofit has continued to follow federal health guidance for homeless shelters, including regular testing, cleaning and making sure everyone wears a mask, regardless of vaccination status.

Additionally, new arrivals to Sam Jones who have not been vaccinated are offered inoculation shots.

While that effort was ultimately not successful in preventing the virus from making its way into the shelter, Holmes said it likely limited the outbreak.

“I would have to imagine without those vaccinations, the numbers could have been a lot worse,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to specify the frequency of COVID-19 testing at the shelter and clarify that the number of delta variant cases at Sam Jones Hall is unknown because lab results are still pending. A statement by Jennielynn Holmes of Catholic Charities about vaccination rates at the shelter also was removed after it was shown to be statistically impossible based on the growing outbreak.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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