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More than 100 residents at Sonoma County’s largest homeless shelter positive for COVID-19, over half of whom fully vaccinated

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More than two-thirds of the 156 residents at Sonoma County's largest homeless shelter have now tested positive for COVID-19, officials said. Of those infected, well over half were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

As of Monday, 107 residents, and three staff members, had tested positive during the nearly monthlong outbreak that has overwhelmed the Samuel L. Jones Hall shelter in Santa Rosa, city and shelter officials said. The city reported at least 64 of the infected residents were fully inoculated.

Local public health officials have said vaccinated people are far more likely to contract the virus when in crowded living situations with others who are unvaccinated. A significant number of Sam Jones residents had not received COVID-19 vaccines, officials said, though it is still unclear exactly how many.

“To us as nonmedical experts, all of this is concerning,” said Jennielynn Holmes, head of homelessness services at Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, which manages the shelter.

Even though vaccines don't provide complete protection against contracting the virus, they do largely prevent severe illness and death. That makes immunization especially crucial for homeless people, who are more likely to have underlying health conditions, putting them at higher risk for COVID-19 complications.

At Sam Jones, nine shelter residents have been hospitalized in the outbreak, six of whom have been released from care, officials said. There have been no reported deaths.

While Sam Jones operators followed federal health and mask guidance for homeless shelters, they did not require people to be vaccinated to receive a bed because the shelter is an "emergency service" akin to a hospital, Holmes said.

At least 25 of the 107 resident cases have been confirmed to be the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, the city of Santa Rosa reported. The strain is driving a rise in infections across Sonoma County and the country, predominantly among the unvaccinated. City officials expect most shelter cases will eventually be confirmed to be the delta variant.

The majority of the county’s vaccinated homeless population was inoculated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, officials said, which a recent New York University study showed may be less effective against the delta variant.

Until this month, only 13 infections had been detected inside the shelter, all in a cluster of cases in January, shelter officials said.

The current outbreak in the 213-bed homeless center, and a broader surge of cases in the local community, spurred county officials earlier this month to reopen an alternative care site for those needing to isolate at the Best Western Dry Creek Inn in Healdsburg.

County health officials declined to answer how many residents were isolating at the care site or comment specifically on the Sam Jones outbreak, directing all questions to the city of Santa Rosa and Catholic Charities. City and shelter officials could not immediately say how many Sam Jones residents were isolating at the care site.

Residents who have completed their isolation periods have returned to the shelter’s main hall, shelter officials said.

While the outbreak is ongoing, Sam Jones has stopped accepting new residents until two weeks after the last positive test result. That has put clearing homeless encampments in Santa Rosa on pause, except for camps that are deemed a serious safety hazard or fire risk.

The most recent positive results were around 20 confirmed cases from testing on Wednesday, meaning the shelter won’t accept new residents until Aug. 4, at the earliest. The next round of testing was scheduled for Monday.

Holmes said Catholic Charities is working with local public health officials to establish new cleaning and symptom screening protocols for eventually accepting new residents. She said she does not expect the shelter will require new residents be fully vaccinated.

“If we limit (who can be accepted), you limit the emergency intervention,” Holmes said. “So it's a balancing of all the risks, while still meeting the mandate of what emergency shelters are supposed to be.”

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

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

To 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.

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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