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Documents show SSU told Sonoma County in late May that deal for coronavirus care site wouldn’t be extended

Top Sonoma County health officials have known for at least five weeks that Sonoma State University would end in June its contract with the county for COVID-19 quarantine and isolation space at the university dorms, a revelation Monday that underscores the county’s failure to identify a replacement site amid a rising coronavirus caseload.

By May 21, just three weeks after sick and vulnerable residents began occupying student housing, SSU officials had communicated their desire to regain control of the dorms by June 30 in at least one phone call, one email and one official letter to Barbie Robinson, whose Health Services department took the lead in securing the SSU facilities.

The university has been willing to extend the county’s use of the campus recreation center and other facilities not connected with student housing since mid-May, but campus officials identified student housing as key to starting classes as soon as Aug. 18.

County officials appeared to have been caught flat-footed by the university’s decision, first reported Monday.

“We went into this with the impression that we were going to have until Sept. 5,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, referring to the full term of the $5 million contract, provided both parties agreed on month-by-month extensions. “We really didn’t expect that we would be here this early.”

Robinson, the health services director, declined an interview Monday to answer questions about the timeline and progression of contract extension talks with SSU, which began mid-May. She also declined to comment on Sunday when the campus’ stance was first reported by The Press Democrat.

In an email late Monday to county supervisors, Robinson sought to explain the development as a communication breakdown, sharing a summary of negotiations with SSU officials over the weekend that were unsuccessful for the county.

“We reiterated the importance of the site to our standing with the state and our vulnerable community members,” Robinson wrote in the letter. It named SSU President Judy Sakaki, Vice President of Operations Joyce Lopes and county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase as parties in the talks. “We also expressed that we would not have entered into the agreement if we’d known that they would not allow us to exercise the three extensions to the agreement, and we expected execution of the extensions barring some major breach of the contract.”

Robinson said her staff has identified four possible replacement sites for the homeless residents, but she didn’t name the sites in her email.

Supervisors on Monday were tight-lipped about what they had been told by Robinson ‒ and when ‒ about the university’s refusal to extend the deal.

“I can’t comment on what we knew when,” Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin said in an interview. “The issue is urgent now to come up with Plan B or fully develop Plan B … I would think that we’re going to have something to inform the community and the board about on Thursday.”

As of Monday afternoon, 125 residents still occupied SSU dorm rooms, including 114 vulnerable homeless residents, and neither officials from SSU nor Sonoma County could pinpoint an exit date for the county. The “final notice” letter July 1 from the university gave the county until July 5 to relocate patients and at-risk homeless individuals from the dorms.

Although supervisors said it would have been unusual for elected leaders to get involved in such negotiations, Gorin said in hindsight she could have taken a more active role.

“It occurs to me I probably should have had conversations with President Sakaki before this,” Gorin said, referring to her only phone call with Sakaki, which took place last Friday. “When it became apparent that it would be helpful to have that conversation, we did so.”

The county’s path forward, including its exit plan at SSU, remains unclear.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, vice chair of the board, said “clearly we needed to have contingency plans in place,” but she joined Gorin and Zane in expressing surprise that SSU maintained the same position it carved out more than a month ago.

“Those hospital beds are filling up as we speak,” Zane said. “We really need to shelter those people. Those are my folks that I represent; those are vulnerable seniors. I’m going to appeal to President (Judy) Sakaki to give us more time for those people.”

Sakaki was unavailable for an interview Monday, but interim university spokesman Robert Eyler said in an email that the repossession of campus facilities “is ultimately the president’s decision.”

“The key reason is that we (are) housing vulnerable students and students generally for whom the campus is a better learning environment for them,” Eyler said via email. The California State University chancellor’s office, as well as the Governor’s office, were made aware of the decision and have not objected, he said.

As part of its bid to resume a mix of on-campus and remote instruction, the university will welcome up to 1,325 students into campus housing starting Aug. 10, and will set aside 200 units for their isolation or quarantine needs. The number of students is pegged to the number of dorm restrooms, per CDC guidelines for higher education, Eyler said.

The formula will cap the number of students using the dorms currently in Sonoma County’s possession to 358, Eyler said.

The university’s communications to Sonoma County, which SSU provided to The Press Democrat on Monday, document weeks of consistent messaging.

SSU officials as early as May 19 plotted their path to a reopened campus in a phone call with top Sonoma County health leaders, following up with an email and a letter two days later reiterating the university’s position.

“The university does not approve the extension for the county to continue use for (the student housing) beyond June 30, 2020, and hereby gives written notice to the County ... that we are terminating the agreement ... and the county’s use must cease no later than June 30, 2020,” according to the letter.

Read the May 21 letter

The university reinforced its position during an in-person meeting June 12, according to its final notice on Wednesday.

On June 25, the university sent another letter to the county, this time informing county leaders that the California State University System had authorized the university’s plan to reopen and house students for the fall semester.

Read the June 25 letter

“This means our ability to assist the county by providing facilities at Sonoma State must cease,” according to the letter.

Finally, SSU sent the letter last Wednesday emphasizing its decision to reject Sonoma County’s request to continue using student housing.

Read the July 1 letter

The initial contract, worth up to $5 million and signed April 6, had provisions that allowed 30-day extensions to Sept. 5, well into the school year, as long as both parties agreed. But the university’s best offer to date is to extend use of the recreation center and other facilities to Aug. 5, the week before students arrive on campus.

Review the original contract

Sonoma County has since April 30 used space at SSU to house people in isolation or quarantine, as well as some of the county’s most vulnerable homeless residents. The campus, nearly emptied by late spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, offered the chance to add 580 beds to the county’s existing 707 hospital beds, boosting critical surge capacity near the start of the pandemic in Sonoma County.

But the county’s six hospitals were spared from an initial surge by public health orders, including emergency stay-at-home directives that early on helped flatten the curve of coronavirus infections.

Sonoma County has never used the cots set up by National Guard soldiers in the SSU recreation center, but Mase said Monday that extra space would be needed in the coming weeks, as the county’s case numbers and deaths rise and other key metrics continue to worsen.

“I think as we have more cases, we will have more need for an alternate care site for those people who can’t isolate at home,” Mase said. “At the skilled nursing facility level, we are going to have more need. We will need an alternate care site.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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