MSC South. Courtesy of St. Vincent De Paul Society

A COVID-19 “outbreak has occurred” at San Francisco’s largest homeless shelter, Mayor London Breed said at a press conference Friday afternoon.

Seventy people at MSC South — 68 shelter residents and two shelter staff — have tested positive for the highly infectious disease, she said, adding that there were 100 people at the shelter Thursday night.

Ordinarily, there are more than 300 guests at the shelter, but now it will serve as a medical facility, most immediately for the 70 who have tested positive. It’s unclear if it will serve more patients. 

Two people with positive cases are “seriously ill,” with one former shelter guest in the hospital, according to Department of Public Health Director Grant Colfax. 

Breed said the city was able to “act fast” because some 945 hotel rooms had been made available for the homeless population should an outbreak occur. 

The outbreak comes after two MSC South residents tested positive over the weekend. Both Breed and members of the Board of Supervisors said that those two residents had been in contact with other members of the shelter, who were under investigation. 

Colfax said he was “very concerned many have chronic health conditions and vulnerable to getting very sick or even dying from the coronavirus.” 

He said the health department is undertaking a “mass testing strategy,” testing shelter guests and staff for symptoms. As of this morning, he said, 144 guests and staff were tested and, of those, the 68 shelter guests and two staff tested positive. He said 71 tested negative. 

The MSC South facility will be transformed into a medical facility for the 70 coronavirus patients and will be staffed with health department doctors and nurses.  

“The fact is, we were on top of it,” Breed said.

The city said earlier this week that it was moving homeless and shelter residents with underlying chronic conditions, or those over 60 years old, to hotel rooms. When asked how many of the 68 residents who tested positive at MSC South fell into those categories, Dr. Colfax said, “Certainly some have those conditions,” but he did not have any firm numbers. He added that if any at the shelter needed “greater levels of care” they would be transported to a hospital facility.

In response to whether the MSC outbreak would trigger mass testing at other shelters or SROs, Dr. Colfax said the department would use “science to decide” when widespread testing is needed.

Members of the Board of Supervisors, faith leaders, and homeless advocates, however, have, for weeks, been pushing the mayor to proactively move asymptomatic homeless people out of congregate settings or the streets and into the city’s vast pool of vacant hotel rooms.

The mayor’s office did not agree.

“It doesn’t make sense to bring online and pay for 5,000 rooms today (and deploy the necessary staff) when the current patient flow doesn’t warrant it,” Human Services Agency director Trent Rhorer told Mission Local last week.

Christopher Herring, a UC Berkeley sociology doctoral student who works with the Coalition on Homelessness, last week told Mission Local he was baffled by this notion of “accommodating the patient flow.”

In Seattle, he pointed out, four shelters were locked down in one day after a resident tested positive — necessitating closures and accommodations for exposed homeless shelter-dwellers.

“The whole idea of ‘patient flow’ is going to get screwed up if you want to move people who come in contact with COVID-19,” he said at the time. “San Francisco’s whole model is reactionary. Even a short delay will result in more deaths and more hospital beds used.”

In response to why the city has not moved all of the homeless and SRO residents into hotels, Abigail Stewart-Kahn, the director of strategy and external affairs for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, returned today to the massive undertaking of such an operation. “We are talking about thousands of people and, in SROs, tens of thousands,” she said. “A task never before faced by our city.”

She repeated remarks made earlier in the week by Breed about the need to staff each hotel with supplies, support staff and social workers.

“We have to look at individuals with substance issues and mental health issues, and we have to think about what comes after this,” she said. “What do we do after we move through this pandemic? … It is really a massive undertaking that has the city’s entire focus.”

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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  1. Thank you, Mr. Mark, for reporting on this critical issue.

    I have conflicting thoughts on the problem. My personal experiences with homeless people have been quite a mixed bag. But then, so too with colleagues at Gilead Sciences. Both have introduced me to wonderful people of the greatest integrity, but others who exploit trust, and the system, whenever they feel they can possibly get away with it. Even the most despicable homeless person I had the misfortune to deal with, including the first person I’ve ever known I would go so far as to label “evil”, do not deserve to actually die. I am not so sure about some of the executives at Gilead. So, it seems to me, lumping everyone who lacks housing together, as many comments here seem to, is probably ill-considered.

    Of course, this is anecdotal, and merely theoretical. But it’s no theory that more homeless will die, needlessly, unjustly, and a cost far greater than what protecting them would have been (their own lives, further spread of the virus, emergency and in-hospital resources, etc.) . Short-sightedness is almost invariably accompanied, in the fullness of time, by higher costs. Mayor Breed should herself be well aware of this, and ought now to incur costs by the penny before they start coming by the pound.

  2. It’s not like we have a shortage of homeless. Most will die of drug overdoses if not this. Get them off the street so they don’t infect the rest of us.

  3. Breed’s entire mayorship has shown that she regards homeless as less worthy of protection so of course during this pandemic it is the same. Even the moscone solution is morbid. No walls or ceiling to separate each bed. It’s perfect for spreading the virus. She talks a good in care’ but it has no result. Shame on her excuses.

  4. Trusted non-profit organizations are ready to help—-will the city make people die waiting—-time to delegate. Enough stalling and incompetence from Breed and Rhorer

  5. Breed has done a terrible job as Mayor. She’s just another sell out, who’s more concerned about image over function. The homeless “crisis” should’ve been effectively dealt with long ago. Prohibiting new residential construction unless it’s LOW INCOME, not Luxury or “AFFORDABLE HOUSING”, would’ve gone a long way towards decreasing homelessness in SF. And not reclassifying certain crimes as misdemeanors, which has emboldened criminals and other opportunists, also would’ve done wonders to improve the quality of life for all who live and work in SF.
    And PLEASE…do not allow Sam Moss, (former Realtor, and now Executive Director of Mission Housing Development Corporation), to influence the deregulation of the housing industry in SF.

  6. That’s some strategy. We’re going move the homeless into all these hotel rooms we bought, or rented (from whom?). Ooops. We forgot about staff and supplies and social workers. It’s a “massive undertaking that no one has ever done before.” Great plan. Let’s do this massive thing no one’s ever done before, that we don’t have even the basics for now, and probably never will, but it sounds like a good idea to the Mayor. What a strategy!!! So now the City’s owns/rents 5,000 hotel rooms. For whom? For what?

    1. I’m going to address your concerns in order:

      – We rented rooms from the hotels (obviously), who submitted bids to the City because they *want* to rent out these rooms. The City will get financial assistance from FEMA for the rooms, and all of them are at a steep discount.
      – Supplies and social workers can be provided by nonprofit partners. Nonprofits are ready, willing, and able to provide these services, and have the skills and connections in the community to do it. This is literally what they do every day, so it would be very easy to switch venues, if not easier because of the extra space and sanitation that hotel rooms offer.
      – What basics? We know how to move people and reserve rooms (nonprofits do it every day through the shelter reservation system), we have the rooms rented, we know the reimbursement process, we have access to emergency funding that doesn’t require red tape. The City has agreed to do this. But they’re moving at a glacial pace and refusing help.
      – For what? For who? For saving lives. For our neighbors. This population will get very, very sick if they get the disease. Their bodies are at least 25 years older than their age, they have comorbidities, they are already sick. They will die. And if you don’t have the heart or humanity to care about sparing their lives and suffering, remember that each of them that gets sick is another ventilator and hospital bed that someone else could have.

      This isn’t the Mayor’s idea. She’s stalling it. I desperately hope she does more and faster.

      1. Howdy neighbor-
        re: “Nonprofits are ready, willing, and able to provide these services, and have the skills and connections in the community to do it. This is literally what they do every day”

        Which groups literally do this every day? Does Glide and St Anthony package thousands of meals every day, respecting specific dietary requirements, delivering them to hotel rooms in a timely manner? My nderstanding is that they feed SOME of the homeless in a cafeteria setting right now. The burden on Meals on Wheels has already doubled just from homebound seniors and others at high risk.

        Who is the service that delivers 16,000 – 24,000 meals a day?

        Who maintains the necessary security literally every day? Vandalism is up and stores are boarded, the police have plenty to do right now. Who makes sure that the residents are only leaving the site for essential reasons?

        Who provides cleaning and sanitation at this level literally every day? Which additional security will accompany the cleaning staff as they go room to room?

        I’m just unclear as to what these resources are that do this type of stuff literally every day. Thanks.

  7. “The center has been transferred into a medical facility” sure sounds like labels and politics first.