As congregate living facilities continue to weather Covid-19 outbreaks, some shelters are quarantining their covid-positive clients in separate rooms, while others without that capacity send clients to city-run isolation and quarantine hotels.
One shelter, however, has been barred from this process, and has been instructed by the city to keep all covid-positive clients with mild symptoms on site, despite its congregate setting and inability to effectively separate sick and healthy residents.
“They’re not picking up any clients unless they have severe symptoms,” said Shari Wooldridge, director of St. Vincent de Paul, which runs the Multi-Service Center South shelter at Bryant and Fifth streets. She was told by the city that there are no more I&Q hotel rooms, and that the shelter should cohort the covid-positive guests.
This meant that 13 of the nearly 20 people who tested positive this week had to stay at the shelter, among all the other residents. The shelter was housing more than 100 people when the outbreak was detected on Monday.
“I don’t know how other nonprofits who are congregate shelters are feeling about this,” Wooldridge said. “But, you know, it’s not something that you can easily just transform into if you don’t have rooms with walls and be able to separate clients and, you know, deal with separate restrooms and that kind of thing.”
Last week, MSC-South’s sister site, Division Circle Navigation Center, saw a large outbreak of at least 50 residents. Clients were being sent to I&Q hotels, albeit slowly.
But on Tuesday, Wooldridge was instructed to “hold on to those who have tested positive” until they have moderate to severe symptoms.
“We’re not necessarily comfortable with the cohorting piece, because MSC, it was a warehouse … so it’s not necessarily set up with a great air filtration system and all that,” Wooldridge said. “There are a lot of open rooms, and it’s going to be hard to sort of confine clients to a certain room.”
Confusingly, another shelter facing a small outbreak, Next Door at Polk and Geary streets, which also has a dorm-style congregate living setup, is still able to send its covid-positive clients to I&Q hotels.
Five Keys CEO Steve Good, who oversees the site, confirmed on Wednesday that the rolling total of cases at Next Door had risen to 32 after some cases were detected last week. And he said all infected clients, symptomatic or not, are still being taken to I&Q hotels. Six asymptomatic clients were transported just yesterday.
The Department of Public Health did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the situation at MSC-South, I&Q hotel room availability or the apparent discrepancy in how shelters are being handled. We will update this story if and when it replies.
The Hamilton Families shelter was also told that I&Q hotel rooms had run out, after a family that recently arrived untested developed covid symptoms soon after. Director Kathy Marsala scrambled to create an isolated area for the family on a separate floor.
Although Marsala was able to avoid a larger outbreak, she said the city was being irresponsible in sending untested people into shelters and exposing at-risk residents and staff. “It’s not okay to not have enough I&Q rooms, it’s not okay for shelters to create their own covid rooms … It’s not okay to deal with this kind of stress.”
Jane Bosio, the union representative for nonprofit shelter workers with OPEIU Local 29, said she was contacted by concerned workers she represents at MSC-South, and started poking around.
She contacted union members who work at shelter-in-place hotels, and spoke with employers there: “They’re housing people out of the hotels. And our members are doing that. So I know that it’s happening. There are rooms.”
Bosio said this is only the latest instance in a long history of the MSC-South residents and workers receiving inferior treatment from the city, and said that MSC-South has long been “the dumping ground for the city. High-needs clients who they cannot place elsewhere, they put at the MSC.”
The MSC-South staff, of which Wooldridge estimates is operating at around 70 percent capacity, is also straining to keep the shelter running while being forced to work closely with covid-positive clients.
“My major concern is for the staff who have to work on the front lines. How do they work in a shelter that has positive clients knowing that they still need to go home to their families and their loved ones?” Wooldridge asked. “I think this puts a lot of pressure on them to be able to function.”
Many of the unhoused people placed at the MSC-South shelter “are not able to care for themselves or take care of their activities of daily living” like using the bathroom or getting in bed, Bosio said, and should be in settings where they can receive more intensive care.
This means that, in addition to not being able to isolate due to the open floor plan, many clients are unable to consistently wear a mask and struggle to understand the importance of doing so while keeping physical distance.
And this further endangers those who work at the shelter, many of whom are people of color, have second jobs and live in multi-generational households.
“The folks who work at the MSC, although the city is placing people and the city is funding this program, they are not city employees. They don’t get city pay. They don’t get city benefits,” Bosio said. “These are low-wage workers who themselves are at high risk.”
Marsala of Hamilton Families, which also gets money from the city, felt similarly: “Someone has to speak out … funding or no funding, we’re talking about people’s lives.”
Wooldridge said that “typically, if people were sick, you’d have high-skilled nurses, but they’re telling us there’s a shortage of personnel on their end. So that’s why they’re asking us to partner with them — for the betterment of the city.”