Homeless shelters navigate latest COVID surge
Speaker 1: (00:00)
As San Diego struggles with its latest coronavirus surge, local homeless shelters have also been hit with outbreaks led by the highly transmissible Omicron variant here to talk about how they've been handling these recent outbreaks and what steps they're taking to minimize them is Lisa Halstadt journalist with voice of San Diego. Lisa,
Speaker 2: (00:18)
Welcome. Thanks for having me. So what are
Speaker 1: (00:21)
People experiencing right now inside of homeless shelters? Well,
Speaker 2: (00:25)
It's been a bit chaotic as it has been for all of us during this latest COVID surge in the last couple weeks, dozens of people staying in city shelters have tested positive, but unlike those of us who live in homes or apartments, where we can safely isolate, although, you know, that's fair, it could be very complicated for individuals. It is even more complicated when you're someone staying in a packed city shelter, living with dozens of other people.
Speaker 1: (00:51)
Mm. Last week you wrote about the current outbreak among the local homeless population. Uh, what are the latest numbers and, and do the outbreak show any signs of bathing?
Speaker 2: (01:01)
So in the past couple weeks, about 100 people staying in city funded shelters have tested positive. That's been about 50 cases each week, and that has really set off a rush to isolate those people, that test positive the city and the shelter providers really do hope that by isolating those people who test positive and stopping shelter intakes, they can stop those outbreaks. They're also doing weekly testing, which they had been doing to try to stay on top of the situation. But I think it's really important to note, you know, as many of us have seen headlines about outbreaks at schools or, you know, being, you know, learning that a bunch of people attended a party and then a bunch of people ended up with COVID even if you are vaccinated and careful Omicron is a real challenge, but it's even more of a challenge with a very vulnerable population staying in city shelters that also happens to be in a congregate setting
Speaker 1: (01:56)
And it is a vulnerable population. So how is this population impacted by contracting COVID? Are there more severe symptoms? Are there more hospitalizations? Do you know any, any have, have any sense of, of how it's impacting, uh, this population?
Speaker 2: (02:12)
Uh, well, what we've learned throughout the pandemic is that people that are without homes just tend to be more vulnerable. I will say also that, you know, the homeless population has been, at least some members of the homeless population have been more hesitant about getting vaccinated. I can't really speak to with these current outbreaks, if the cases have been more severe than they've been in the general population, but it's certainly more complicated. I think all of us, if you know, we get sick, we would like to isolate in our homes or feel like if we needed to access healthcare, maybe we could do that like last week, although I did not have COVID, I was able to do, uh, virtual urgent care for something that's a little bit more complicated when you're without a home.
Speaker 1: (02:57)
So what do shelter providers currently do when one of its residents test positive, uh, what's their current policy.
Speaker 2: (03:04)
So they hurry to really separate that person from others, staying in the shelter as quickly as possible and move them to a temporary isolation space. Now, typically that is indeed a temporary isolation space. The folks who test positive are transported to county funded hotel rooms, where they can safely isolate for at least 10 days. The issue has been that those hotel rooms have been a lot less available recently. And so homeless shelter providers have had to, in many cases, isolate people and make shift isolation, tents that they're struggling to keep he during this cold weather that we've had. So many people who have test positive recently have stayed intense for their full 10 day isolation period.
Speaker 1: (03:48)
Earlier in the pandemic, hotels were a major tool in trying to minimize the spread of coronavirus cases in the homeless population. Is that policy still being used?
Speaker 2: (03:58)
Yes, but the county has had fewer rooms available for this purpose, um, recently than it has had in the past. And these rooms have been a really key part of the isolation response for shelters. So shelters would temporarily isolate people on their own grounds until they could be moved to hotel rooms. Um, but those rooms were largely a unavailable during the last week of December when 50 people tested positive at alpha project and father Joe's shelters, the county says it has since added 40 new hotel rooms for this purpose and said late Friday, it hoped more people who tested positive last week would be able to move onto hotel rooms. But as of Friday to 17, people had moved into hotel rooms, which is far short of the roughly 50 who had tested positive last week, other
Speaker 1: (04:49)
Than having available rooms. You also write about shelter providers struggles to have them fully staffed, have staffing shortages had any impact on shelter's ability to provide services at this point.
Speaker 2: (05:01)
So shelter providers have told me that their staff members have really stepped up to come to work during a time when most of us took off during the holidays. Meanwhile, as many employers, um, they have had, uh, some employees test positive. I would note too that one of the challenges that the county has shared and it comes to the hotel rooms, is that they have had staffing issues for the hotel rooms as well. And the county has made the point that, you know, while it would like to make more rooms available and, and says, it has indeed in the last week, uh, you need to make sure that that hotel room that's added has staff attached to it who provide care to individuals staying in them. And so that's been a real challenge, um, that the county has voiced throughout its hotel program. And you
Speaker 1: (05:50)
Write that at least some have criticized the city and county's lack of preparation as the holidays approach. Uh, what could they have
Speaker 2: (05:57)
Done better? Well, I think it's really important to note that in mid-December U C S D researchers sounded the alarm about an expected COVID surge during the holidays. And certainly there were many news stories about, you know, the likelihood of, of a holiday surge. And we also had known that shelters here and where in the country have seen large scale outbreaks before. Uh, some have argued that the county should have proactively increased its stock of hotel rooms for people who test positive. But instead there was a shortage of rooms. When that surge came. You also had a situation where, you know, both the providers and the city and the county also like had less staff available just because of the timing of this. And so some folks have said that might have made sense to, to try to create a more proactive plan for what might happen and what resources would be needed. If there was indeed a surgeon cases during the holidays, do you
Speaker 1: (06:54)
Think providers and local officials are better prepared to handle type of outbreaks now?
Speaker 2: (06:59)
Well, now that the holidays are behind us, certainly both providers and local officials are likely more available to have proactive conversations about their responses. Um, I know that off a project which operates two city shelters now has two party tents available that it can use just temporarily isolate people. And also has temporarily acquired a location where that tent or tents can be put up. But the key question really is whether the county can provide more hotel rooms when they're needed to lessen the chaos that we saw play out during the holidays.
Speaker 1: (07:33)
I've been speaking with voice of San Diego reporter, Lisa Hal stat. Lisa, thank you.
Speaker 2: (07:38)
Thank you for having me.
San Diego area homeless shelters have seen a rise in coronavirus cases. They're trying to quickly isolate those affected to minimize outbreaks.
Voice of San Diego's Lisa Halverstadt joined Midday Edition on Monday to talk about the efforts local shelters are taking to fight recent outbreaks and to talk about some of the unique challenges they face.
Local city shelters are seeing about 50 new cases per week in recent weeks, Halverstadt said, and finding the space to quickly isolate those who test positive has been difficult. Hotel rooms that were relied on earlier in the pandemic have been hard to come by.
"Omicron is a real challenge. But it's even more of a challenge with a very vulnerable population staying in city shelters that also happens to be in a congregate setting," Halverstadt said.