The MSC South homeless shelter. (Courtesy photo)

‘Explosive catastrophe’: 70 test positive for COVID-19 at SF homeless shelter

San Francisco — and Northern California’s — largest homeless shelter is now experiencing an “outbreak” of COVID-19, MayorLondon Breed said today.

San Francisco — and Northern California’s — largest homeless shelter is now experiencing an “outbreak” of COVID-19, Mayor London Breed said Friday.

Seventy people have tested positive for COVID-19 at the MSC South homeless shelter on Fifth Street, which regularly houses between 300 and 400 people without homes.

That counts 68 sheltered people and two staff members, Breed said, many of whom have already been moved into hotels for quarantine. In her announcement at a Friday press conference, Breed addressed San Franciscan’s fears of overwhelmed hospitals, a situation already besieging New York City amid the pandemic.

“A real challenging situation we know could have been worse will be a little bit better, because of the work we prepared to do to know we could respond quickly,” Breed told reporters.

MSC South is run by the St. Vincent De Paul Society of San Francisco, but what once was a homeless shelter will transform. San Francisco Department of Public Health Director Grant Colfax announced Friday that the shelter would be converted into a “medical care facility” and that some of those testing positive there would be treated on-site.

MSC South is now a “recovery center,” he said, staffed by health experts and nurses. Those being treated ther efor COVID-19 will be transported to hospitals “if their conditions worsen,” Colfax said.

San Francisco has 797 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases as of Friday, Colfax said, with 13 dead.

Of those who were sheltering at MSC South, 71 test results came out negative and three tests are still pending.

“We are doing everything we can for them and to reduce the size of the outbreak,” Colfax said. None of those who tested positive are yet “seriously ill,” he added.

Two other individuals, one each in two separate homeless shelters, have so far tested positive for COVID-19, city officials added.

Breed said the commitment from everyday San Franciscans to shelter-in-place has eased burdened San Francisco hospitals, preventing the MSC South outbreak from taking a drastic toll on city health resources. Still, providing healthy and safe places to quarantine unhoused San Franciscans has proved a challenge, officials said.

The City also has 2,000 hotel rooms available for first-responders and vulnerable populations, like unhoused people and those living in single-room-occupancy hotels. The City has been seeking as many as 7,000 to house homeless people and people in single room occupancy hotels who test positive for COVID-19.

Despite those efforts, homeless advocates and the Board of Supervisors have lambasted Breed for weeks, calling on her to pre-emptively move homeless people into hotel rooms to prevent outbreaks like the one announced today at MSC South.

“We are really horrified and super scared more folks are going to end up dying,” Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness told the San Francisco Examiner.

Hotel rooms for unhoused people would prevent outbreaks and save lives, she said.

“San Francisco has the power to commandeer these hotel rooms and pay a reasonable rate,” she said. Homeless people are more likely to die from COVID-19, she noted, as they are a population that is generally older and has underlying conditions, the two most vulnerable populations to COVID-19.

In response to the demand from the Board of Supervisors and homeless advocates, Breed has publicly said the problem isn’t necessarily a financial barrier to obtaining hotel rooms, but staffing them adequately. That shortage has stemmed their hotel acquisition efforts, she said.

Still, Friedenbach was shocked, though not surprised, by the MSC South outbreak.

It’s “an explosive catastrophe, is what I’d call it.”

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