COVID-19 outbreaks hit six of the largest Sonoma County homeless shelters
COVID-19 outbreaks hit six of the largest homeless shelters in Sonoma County this past week, again raising concerns about the virus spreading among the vulnerable unhoused population — and forcing shelter operators to pause accepting new residents in the middle of winter, when many living on the street are in the most need of beds.
Amid a heavy surge of infections fueled by the extremely contagious omicron variant, small clusters of cases have been detected at shelters that account for well over half of the roughly 900 beds normally available in the county.
That includes Samuel Jones Hall and the Family Support Center in Santa Rosa operated by Catholic Charities; the Men’s Mission shelter, Rose shelter for women and children, and a winter shelter in Santa Rosa run by Redwood Gospel Mission; and the Mary Isaak Center Emergency Shelter run by COTS in Petaluma.
As of Friday, there were only around a dozen cases and one hospitalization among residents at the shelters, operators confirmed.
But given omicron’s contagiousness, officials are bracing for a potential wave of infections that could mirror a massive July outbreak at city-owned Sam Jones — the largest shelter in the county — in which 116 out 153 residents tested positive and two died of COVID-19 complications.
“It’s very concerning. I’m super worried about it, especially after what we went through over the summer,” said Kelli Kuykendall, homeless services manager for Santa Rosa.
While omicron is proving to be less deadly than the delta variant, which had until late last year been the dominant strain of the virus, it remains a significant threat to many homeless people, who often have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to serious illness. That risk is even higher for those who are unvaccinated.
The virus also is more likely to spread in group living settings such as homeless shelters, nursing homes and jails. Authorities on Tuesday confirmed an outbreak at the Sonoma County Jail that triggered the lockdown of over 200 inmates.
By Dec. 26, the average number of new daily cases countywide had climbed to 41.5 per 100,000 people. By Dec. 31, it had more than doubled, reaching a pandemic high of 92.2 cases per 100,000 people, according to the county’s latest COVID-19 data, which calculates 7-day averages.
By Saturday, the most current average local transmission rate was 91 new daily cases per 100,000 residents. Three weeks ago, that rate was 19 new cases.
Still, infections haven’t surged among the local homeless population, according to county data, though officials say testing the unhoused can be challenging.
Over the past 90 days, 36 homeless people have tested positive and one has died of COVID-19 complications. For the entire pandemic, there have been 363 cases among the county homeless population of an estimated 2,700 people. County officials could not immediately provide the total number of deaths.
Even before the coronavirus strained the shelter system, there were only enough beds for about a third of local unhoused people, with the rest living in vehicles or on the street, according to the county’s last homeless count in January 2020.
Under COVID-19 protocols, group shelters now dealing with outbreaks must stop accepting intakes until two consecutive weeks go by without any residents testing positive. And most shelters had already reduced bed capacity by as much as a third to allow for better social distancing.
“With what's happening, I don’t know of any shelters that are taking people right now,” said Robin Phoenix, shelter manager at the Mary Isaak Center in Petaluma.
One of the shelter’s 56 residents tested positive this week after the man was hospitalized with fever-like symptoms.
Phoenix said a handful of staff have also tested positive or had to quarantine, an additional stress on shelter operations.
“I’m pretty exhausted, but we stay the course,” she said.
Not enough beds also means local encampment enforcement could grind to halt. That’s because of a 2018 federal court ruling requiring municipalities in western states to offer shelter before clearing most camps on public property.
A similar 2019 federal injunction applying only to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County expired at the end of last year, but local officials must continue following the broader court ruling.
At the Redwood Gospel Mission Shelters in Santa Rosa, which has had about eight recent cases among around 120 residents at its three shelters, the outbreak has forced operators to turn away those seeking refuge from the winter weather.