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Sam Jones homeless shelter resident dies of COVID-19 complications

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.

A resident at the Samuel L. Jones Hall homeless shelter has died of complications of the coronavirus, the first death in a nearly monthlong outbreak that has overwhelmed Sonoma County’s largest shelter.

The man who died was between 50 and 64 years old, was not vaccinated and had underlying health issues, county officials said, declining to provide more information about him. He died on Sunday at an unidentified local hospital. His death was the 11th local fatality in July and the 330th in Sonoma County since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Since one person died at the shelter in January during an earlier outbreak infecting 13 people, this is the second fatality there linked to COVID-19, officials said Wednesday.

In this latest outbreak — the county’s second-largest during the pandemic — 110 of the 156 shelter residents, along with three Sam Jones’ staff, have tested positive for the infectious disease as of Wednesday, city officials said.

At least 51 shelter residents have contracted the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, officials said. The strain is driving a rise in infections and deaths across Sonoma County and the country, predominantly among the unvaccinated.

Officials expect most of the infections at the shelter eventually will be confirmed to be the delta variant.

Nearly half of the shelter population was unvaccinated prior to the COVID-19 outbreak that began July 2.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said the low vaccination rate at Sam Jones is likely what made the outbreak so severe.

“Especially with a variant like the delta variant, it takes an even greater percentage of people (getting vaccinated) to protect everybody,” Mase said.

Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, the nonprofit that manages the shelter, began working with local health care groups to offer residents vaccines on-site once the shots became available earlier this year for homeless people.

It also followed federal health and mask guidance for homeless shelters throughout the pandemic, though some residents have told The Press Democrat that COVID-19 protocols were not always strictly enforced before the outbreak emerged early this month.

The nonprofit has said it did not turn away unvaccinated people seeking a bed because the shelter is an “emergency service” akin to a hospital.

During a county health briefing on Wednesday, Mase appeared to agree with that decision.

“There's no mandate for vaccination in order to be in a shelter, otherwise people are homeless and unsheltered,” she said. “Moving forward, we need to try to get as many homeless and unsheltered vaccinated as possible whether they're in a shelter or not."

A county-supported effort sending mobile vaccine clinics to homeless camps and shelters is ongoing, county spokesman Matt Brown said. The majority of the county’s vaccinated homeless population has received the single shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, officials said, which a recent New York University study showed may be less effective against the delta variant.

The county does not keep records of how many local homeless people are vaccinated because the state doesn’t ask for it.

But according to city officials, of those infected in the outbreak at Sam Jones, over half had been fully vaccinated.

Mase has said vaccinated people are far more likely to contract the virus in crowded living situations with others who are unvaccinated. Even though inoculations don't provide complete protection against contracting the virus, she stressed they largely prevent the worst medical outcomes, including severe illness and death.

Since the outbreak began, 11 shelter residents have been hospitalized and at least six of whom have been released from care, officials said. None of the three staff members who tested positive required hospital care.

Of the 11 residents, eight were fully vaccinated. Three were admitted to area hospitals for reasons other than COVID-19. None hospitalized are currently in intensive care, city officials said.

Jennielynn Holmes, head of homelessness services at Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, said the extra protection that vaccines provide could convince more residents to get their shots.

“With the vaccinations, we can prevent these deaths,” Holmes said, adding that around 20 residents of Sam Jones signed up for shots during the first week of the outbreak. “We're hoping that will help residents reach out and want to get vaccinated.”

Sandra Austin, who moved into Sam Jones after the homeless encampment where she was staying in Santa Rosa was cleared last month, tested positive in the shelter’s COVID-19 outbreak despite being vaccinated.

Her boyfriend, Monty, who was staying with her at the shelter, hasn’t been vaccinated. Earlier this week, he was hospitalized after getting infected by the virus.

“I’m so filled with anxiety. I’m so worried about my significant other because he doesn’t like being alone ...,” Austin said. “I’m so scared because I’m not ready to leave this world.”

Austin is now staying at the Best Western Dry Creek Inn in Healdsburg, an alternative care site the county opened last month for people needing to isolate after contracting COVID-19.

On Wednesday, 19 Sam Jones’ shelter residents were staying at the Best Western. Once residents complete their isolation periods, they can return to 213-bed shelter’s main hall.

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 deemed a serious safety hazard or fire risk.

The most recent positive results were a handful of cases stemming from testing on Monday, meaning the shelter won’t accept new residents until Aug. 9, at the earliest. The next round of testing was scheduled for Thursday.

Holmes with Catholic Charities said she was optimistic there would be no more resident deaths in the outbreak.

"No one is in the ICU, so that gives me some hope," she said.

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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