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Largest homeless shelter in Sonoma County pauses intake after COVID-19 outbreak

After a false alarm last month, Santa Rosa officials have confirmed that COVID-19 has finally made its way inside the largest homeless shelter in Sonoma County, prompting a temporary pause on new admissions at the city-owned Samuel L. Jones Hall.

A potential coronavirus exposure prompted surveillance testing at Sam Jones over the past two weeks, according to officials with Santa Rosa and Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the city’s main homeless services provider.

The individual who was feared to have exposed the shelter ended up testing negative, said Kelli Kuykendall, the city’s housing and community services manager, but follow-up testing among the shelter’s residents turned up positive cases of COVID-19.

Officials could not say Saturday how the virus had found its way inside the shelter on Finley Avenue in southwest Santa Rosa.

“We don't have any information at this point on how the virus might have spread to the shelter,” said Paul Gullixson, spokesman for Sonoma County, which carries out COVID-19 contact tracing work. “But I do know that our contract tracers are looking into it.”

There were 11 shelter residents infected as of Sunday, with no staff testing positive so far and sick residents experiencing minor symptoms, said Jennielynn Holmes, chief programs officer for Catholic Charities.

Although Santa Rosa and Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa have overseen occasional COVID-19 testing at Sam Jones throughout the pandemic, they’ll start a twice-weekly testing program at the shelter through St. Joseph Health. And until Sam Jones goes two weeks without a positive, people looking for shelter will have to go elsewhere.

“We’re trying to be creative and find spots in other shelters in other parts of the community,” Holmes said.

Given the itinerant lifestyles of people experiencing homelessness amid a viral pandemic that spreads through interpersonal contact, it’s no small feat that the pandemic didn’t breach Sam Jones’ walls until late December. Holmes credited a vigilant screening program for helping stave off an outbreak until now, and she noted the advanced level of community spread of COVID-19 occurring now in Sonoma County and across the nation.

“We’ve had really strict protocols in place for cleaning and sanitation,” Holmes said. “I think right now, it’s happening across the county at a much greater level.”

Gullixson also said he wasn’t surprised that a shelter like Sam Jones would find itself affected at the end of 2020 and the start of 2021.

“As you know, many of our institutions, including hospitals and jails, are being hit hard by this latest uptick in cases, so it is not surprising that local homeless shelters might be hit by this as well,” Gullixson said via email. “We all need to be diligent as we work our way through this latest surge.”

The outbreak accounts for nearly one-third of the 36 cases confirmed among the local homeless population as of Monday, according to Sonoma County’s public-facing online coronavirus dashboard. That’s the last day results of the testing at Sam Jones were available, Kuykendall confirmed Saturday. Holmes said no more cases were added Sunday.

Sam Jones remains the largest shelter in the county despite the shuffling of its facilities caused by COVID-19, which demanded greater internal social distancing than its pre-pandemic layout allowed.

Catholic Charities, for years the city’s homeless services provider of choice, altered Sam Jones’ layout last spring, reducing the old naval facility’s capacity by about 60 beds to allow for more space while entering into long term leases of rooms at The Sandman Hotel to maintain capacity.

The city this year erected a sturdy, tented structure in a parking lot adjacent to Sam Jones. This extra space, known as a sprung structure after the company that popularized the tented set-up, was meant to restore the 60 beds Sam Jones lost in its reshuffling.

But for now, it’s being used to isolate symptomatic shelter occupants before they’re placed into a hotel room or another alternate shelter site, Holmes said. Individuals who have been in close contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19 are being isolated in a separate dorm within Sam Jones.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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