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Sonoma County scrambles to secure extra hospital beds after Sonoma State University cancels contract

Sonoma County officials are scrambling amid a harrowing spike of coronavirus cases and deaths to secure extra space if needed for hospital patients after Sonoma State University decided to reject the county’s request to continue using the campus.

The university’s decision, announced in a Wednesday letter to county and state leaders that surfaced Sunday, is key to its plan to welcome students back to the Rohnert Park campus Aug. 10.

Although the county knew since late May that retaining the space at SSU was going to be a long shot, officials have yet to identify a replacement site.

In its July 1 letter, SSU calls on Sonoma County to vacate its campus by Sunday, but several officials with the university and the county called that a soft deadline. There was no evidence of a coordinated moving effort Sunday afternoon.

“It’s somewhat fluid,” Robert Eyler, a university spokesman, said. “I believe it’s going to be lengthened. There was going to be some work on that.”

The SSU rejection letter also comes amid the county’s worst stretch so far in fighting the virus, at the end of a two-week period that saw the county add 540 cases, including a record 92 on Friday, and in the middle of the county’s deadliest week — when six more people died, bringing the death toll to 11.

“Personally, I would implore Sonoma State to reconsider,” Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “We are in the middle of unprecedented numbers of cases, and now is the absolute worst time to lose our alternate care site.”

Sonoma County has since late April used SSU campus space to house people in isolation or quarantine, and some of the county’s most vulnerable homeless residents. The campus, nearly emptied by late spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, helped add 580 additional beds to the county’s existing 707 hospital beds in case there’s a flood of virus patients at one time that need to be hospitalized. However, the six local hospitals never reached capacity as public health emergency stay-at-home directives helped flatten the initial curve of coronavirus infections.

Registered nurses Nicole Garcia, left, and Sandra Castano walk through the Sauvignon Village student housing complex after checking on some of the temporary residents quarantining from COVID-19 on the Sonoma State University campus in Rohnert Park, Calif., on Sunday, July 5, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
Registered nurses Nicole Garcia, left, and Sandra Castano walk through the Sauvignon Village student housing complex after checking on some of the temporary residents quarantining from COVID-19 on the Sonoma State University campus in Rohnert Park, Calif., on Sunday, July 5, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
The Verdot Village housing complex is currently occupied by homeless residents with underlying medical conditions or who are over 65 on the Sonoma State University campus in Rohnert Park, Calif., on Sunday, July 5, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
The Verdot Village housing complex is currently occupied by homeless residents with underlying medical conditions or who are over 65 on the Sonoma State University campus in Rohnert Park, Calif., on Sunday, July 5, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
A temporary resident of the Verdot Village student housing complex sits outside in his wheelchair on the Sonoma State University campus in Rohnert Park, California, on Sunday, July 5, 2020. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
A temporary resident of the Verdot Village student housing complex sits outside in his wheelchair on the Sonoma State University campus in Rohnert Park, California, on Sunday, July 5, 2020. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

As the virus comes roaring back, though, county officials have worked feverishly behind the scenes to secure an extension of the contract. When county Department of Health Services Director Barbie Robinson informed county supervisors of the failure Thursday to reach a contract extension agreement with SSU, she cited the high stakes.

“It is critical that we secure the continued use of the SSU facilities to support our effort to respond to the current (virus) surge,” Robinson said in the email.

But SSU officials rebuffed county requests for an extension on multiple occasions, in correspondence dated May 21, May 22 and June 25, as well as during an in-person meeting June 12, according to the SSU letter.

ESW Letter to County of Sonoma Letter.pdf

The initial contract, worth up to $5 million, could have continued through Sept. 5, if both parties agreed. But after extending the agreement once, SSU and California State University officials reiterated in the July 1 letter that SSU had done enough.

“The (California State University) is proud to have helped the County care for our broader community, but now we must insist that the County allow Sonoma State to refocus its resources toward its core mission as a University providing higher education,” the letter read, in part.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase knew as recently as June 18 an extension of the SSU agreement was in question, and she acknowledged then in a phone interview the county had not identified any alternate locations.

Robinson could not be reached Sunday evening for comment.

Even during the initial selection process, which crystalized in late March, Sonoma County never actively considered other sites for an overflow of area hospital patients, officials said at the time.

“We should have had a backup plan all along,” Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said Sunday. “Whether staff did, I don’t know.”

Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin and Zane said they each spoke with Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki and they understood the university’s position. Hopkins called the college’s decision challenging for the county.

“One of the reasons we chose SSU is we very much hoped and believed we would be granted an extension,” Hopkins said. “So it’s certainly challenging for the county to completely change strategies midstream.”

In the last week’s letter, SSU offered to extend for one month the county’s use of the some of its facilities — the unoccupied campus recreation center, the isolation and quarantine living quarters at Cooperage among them. The roughly 100 homeless people now being housed at the Verdot Village, though, were to leave immediately, according to the letter.

The original contract also calls on Sonoma County to have the university space professionally cleaned.

SSUContract.pdf

Gorin said Sunday the county has to work quickly — not only to vacate the premises, but to secure a new alternate care site.

“I think it’s extremely urgent that we locate additional facilities now more than ever, given the surge we’ve seen in the past week,” Gorin said.

On Sunday afternoon, a quiet SSU campus belied the frenetic pace behind the scenes. Birds chirped as security guards sat behind fold-out plastic tables beneath shade tents.

At the rec center, nobody monitored the openings in temporary fencing, the large, empty white tents or the rows of portable toilets. A peek inside the building revealed a gymnasium bathed in light, revealing row after row of empty unused cots since being set up in mid-April by the Army National Guard.

County officials fear they’ll soon need those beds. Robinson, Mase, Gorin, Hopkins and Zane all have said in the past week they expect the county to find itself this week on the governor’s watchlist of California counties most struggling with the virus outbreak. As soon as Monday, Sonoma County could join 22 other counties subject to close monitoring and forced to close bars, and halt indoor dining and drinking at wineries and brewpubs.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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

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