Ukiah homeless shelter residents quarantine after COVID-19 outbreak
One of Mendocino County’s few homeless shelters is under quarantine while health officials monitor a COVID-19 outbreak that has so far infected eight residents.
“We know that it’s something we need to be communicating to the public: what our response is, how serious we’re taking this, and how we are part of the plan to keep the rest of the community safe from any additional spread,” said Victoria Kelly, CEO of Redwood Community Services, a nonprofit organization that operates the Building Bridges Homeless Resource Center in Ukiah.
The first resident of the shelter tested positive for the coronavirus on Dec. 3 and was moved into isolation at a local hotel. Seven additional residents, most of them asymptomatic, tested positive Sunday after Mendocino County Public Health workers tested the remaining 46 homeless people staying at the shelter and about 14 staff members.
The sick residents are receiving care from a team with Adventist Health Ukiah Valley Street Medicine. The remaining residents who were exposed to the virus but tested negative are in quarantine at the shelter.
The center has curtailed drop-in services that allow homeless people to stop by during the day to access laundry, showers, electricity and more. Until the shelter sees two weeks pass with no new positive tests, it will stay that way.
“Now, they’re cut off from that resource,” said Sage Wolf, a homelessness and housing program manager who works at the shelter. Wolf and other staff have to tell visitors who show up during the day that they can’t access the usual services.
“It’s so hard for us to have to say, ’No, we can’t help you,’” Wolf said. “We want to keep you safe, we want to protect you. We don’t want to spread the virus to you if we have it here at the shelter.”
Kelly said shelter staff often have nowhere else to send people for help, which she described as an “ongoing challenge.”
Redwood Community Services staff announced through its social media that the daytime resource center would be unavailable after the first positive test result last Thursday. After the seven additional cases were confirmed, Mendocino County Public Health notified the public that the shelter was experiencing an outbreak.
“When we have outbreaks (small or large), we will do outbreak testing and share details with the public so they know if they need to get tested and where to go,” said Sarah Dukett, deputy CEO and public information officer for the Mendocino County Executive Office, in an email.
County Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren praised shelter staff for both their preparation and response to the COVID-19 cases.
“Building Bridges has been preparing for the possibility of an outbreak for some time due to the risk associated with their work, and have done all they can to slow the spread at their shelter,” Coren said in a news release. “The staff at Building Bridges are heroes for dedicating themselves to helping such a vulnerable population during these times. No facility anywhere is immune to an outbreak of COVID-19.”
While the center remains quarantined, residents who would normally leave the shelter during the day to go about their lives are instead remaining there. Staff are working hard to keep them entertained and supplied with what they need to avoid unnecessary contact outside the shelter.
“It’s hard to share a space with people sometimes,” Wolf said. “Being cooped up together, we’ve been strategizing around de-escalation and minimizing opportunities for conflict between staff and guests and really focus on compassion and caring for each other.”
Residents and staff will continue to be tested twice weekly while the shelter remains under quarantine, and the nonprofit hopes that no more cases will emerge — both to preserve the health of those living in the shelter, but also to allow access to other county residents in need of Building Bridges’ services.
“Our job is to keep people having access to services and supports and shelter,” Wolf said. “So even through conflict, even through challenges, we see our job and our role as keeping people with having access.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or email@example.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.