Public Health director: ‘the worst is yet to come’
San Francisco Examiner, Mar. 23, 2020
By Joshua Sabatini
As the head of the public health department warned Monday “the worst is yet to come,” hoteliers offered The City about 8,500 hotel rooms to house homeless and first responders. But how San Francisco uses the empty rooms has become subject to a debate, with some members of the Board of Supervisors wanting The City to house as many homeless persons as possible, not just those who need quarantine. The debate over how to respond to the homeless comes as the Director of the Public Health Department Grant Colfax said Monday that “the worst is yet to come” as confirmed cases of COVID-19 reached 131. The City began looking for hotel rooms for an alternative to having people occupy hospital beds as they fear a surge in coronavirus patients could overwhelm the healthcare system. Hotels are an obvious choice as the spread of the respiratory virus has caused their occupancy rates to plummet. Mayor London Breed, Supervisor Aaron Peskin and other city officials facilitated the conversations with the hotel industry and 31 hotels stepped forward offering about 8,500 rooms. A list of potential hotels obtained by the San Francisco Examiner includes those like the Phoenix Hotel, Westin St. Francis and Holiday Inn Golden Gateway. Contracts are not finalized and city officials are in the process of inspecting the rooms to determine if they are suitable. Breed and her administration said at a Monday press conference that the hotel rooms will be prioritized for homeless or those living in single-room occupancy hotels who test positive for COVID-19 or need to quarantine while awaiting test results. They may also be used for first responders like healthcare workers, police and fire to protect their families from possible exposure as well as for seniors who are patients in long-term care facilities like Laguna Honda Hospital. But Supervisor Matt Haney announced Monday he will introduce a resolution Tuesday that calls on The City to house people in homeless shelters and living on the street in hotel rooms. He was joined by Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Shamann Walton and Dean Preston during a virtual press conference. When asked if she would support using hotel rooms to house homeless beyond those prioritized, Breed said using hotels include many logistics to work out like laundry and food services, labor unions, security guards and insurance. “We are only going to communicate exactly what we are able to deliver on,” Breed said. “This is what I am focused on, and not on the criticism or the suggestions of what more we need.” The supervisors argue The City must move to house everyone as quickly as possible and secure even more hotel rooms to meet the need because they say it’s simply safer to have one’s own room to shelter-in-place, as San Franciscans were ordered to do last week. The order exempts homeless persons, since they do not have homes to shelter in. Haney’s resolution grew out of last week’s Board of Supervisors hearing on The City’s virus response when San Francisco’s Health Officer Dr. Tomas Aragon said “from a disease-transmission perspective, absolutely having your own room is the best.” “We haven’t seen an adequate priority to make sure that the people who are on our streets are also able to get into individual rooms to protect their health,” Haney said. Aragon has the power to issue health orders, such as the stay at home order he issued last week. Haney’s resolution calls on him to issue “a new Health Order mandating that homeless individuals in congregate emergency shelters be placed in private rooms immediately even if they aren’t exhibiting symptoms” and it calls on The City to “urgently procure rooms and mobilize hotel vouchers.” “We believe that if we have upwards of 30,000 empty hotel rooms in San Francisco and we have thousands of people on our streets and living in dangerous congregate living scenarios that are able to take of themselves in individual rooms then we should move them into those rooms,” Ronen said. Trent Rhorer, the head of the Human Services Agency, who is in charge of the emergency shelter response for the homeless, said at the press conference with the mayor Monday that he does not intend to use the hotel rooms for the broad homeless population on the streets and in shelters. He said that they estimate they will need about 4,500 hotel rooms for prioritized populations. There are 2,000 single adults in San Francisco’s shelter system an and additonal 8,000 homeless peeople on the streets, according to Rhorer. When it comes to this population, Rhorer said that The City would use the hotel rooms to provide a “quarantine for those [homeless] individuals who are currently in our hospital and waiting for a test result for COVID.” “These are individuals who do not need to be hospitalized based on their medical needs but are in the hospital because they will not be released to the street. They must be released to quarantine rooms,” Rhorer said. He said they have already secured 310 rooms for this purpose at this point. Rhorer said that for the existing shelters, comprising about 2,000 beds, they are creating more space to ensure six-foot social distancing by reducing the number of people allowed in them and opening an “integrated care shelter” at Moscone North within the next day or two for “individuals in high risk category but cannot self care.” The agency is also looking for another site for a similar purpose. The City is preparing for a surge of cases of the virus, which Colfax, the head of the health department, warned Monday was coming soon. “Every community where the virus has taken hold has seen a surge in coronavirus patients who need to be hospitalized,” Colfax said. “We expect that to happen in San Francisco, soon, in a week or two, or perhaps even less.” He noted that on March 5 there were two confirmed cases of COVID-19 and that cases have since increased to more than 100. On Monday there were 131 cases. “The numbers are rising rapidly,” Colfax said. “We also know that the confirmed case count is not a true picture of the spread of the virus in the community.” Due to limited testing, only certain persons are prioritized for the testing. That means that those with mild or no symptoms can go undiagnosed but transmit the respiratory virus. He added, “Our urgent goal now is for fewer people to get sick at once.” Meanwhile, Preston said that he was working to finalize the renting of an initial 20 hotel rooms in his district using privately raised funds to shelter homeless families and women who are currently in shelters in his district.