The Department of Public Health is seeking to loosen an emergency rule requiring it to reach out to single room occupancy residents within 48 hours of someone in their building testing positive for coronavirus.
But advocates are warning against the change, arguing that the current rules are not being correctly implemented and that delays are endangering public health.
The emergency order, which was issued in May, expired at the end of July and was scheduled to be heard at the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee on Monday, though it will likely be delayed to another meeting.
In a letter sent to the Board of Supervisors on Friday, SRO advocates said a slow response by the health department to positive test results had led to at least one outbreak at an unidentified Chinatown SRO earlier this month.
The owner was not informed for several days to begin deep cleaning and The City did not reach out to residents until eight days later, the SRO groups alleged. Four more residents had tested positive by the time testing was conducted the next day and another six of 20 were found to be positive in an Aug. 14 round of testing, according to the letter.
To Central City Collaborative, Mission SRO Collaborative, SRO Families United Collaborative, Chinatown Community Development Center, and Senior and Disability Action, the slow response is indicative of a larger problem.
“Our objection to the department’s proposed amendment is not simply a disagreement over testing priorities,” the letter read. “At issue also is the department’s repeated failure to recognize and respect the right of tenants to know and respond to the threats they and their families face.”
According to the tenant organizers, tenants are often simply asked if they’re able to self-isolate without specifying what that means or taking into account the shared bathrooms and kitchens. They are also given little to no information on the isolation and quarantine hotel rooms available and may have a hard time following up if they decide to take up the offer.
That happened in a case at the Delbex Hotel on Mission Street, said CCDC organizer Juan Garcia. Public health workers asked a tenant who tested positive if he could self-isolate and left him with the impression that the quarantine unit was optional, despite the fact that an elderly man lived in the unit next to him.
“In his mind, he’s like, ‘yes, I’m alone,’ he has no family there but he didn’t really understand it,” said Garcia. “Their lives are constantly at risk. They’re waiting in line to use the kitchen or to use the one bathroom that’s actually working…it’s a risk. Sometimes I feel like that’s not being considered by DPH, it’s about the numbers.”
The health department has told supervisors the testing mandate is an ineffective use of limited sources. Five SRO residents have died from coronavirus so far, at a slightly higher case fatality rate than for San Francisco overall but lower than California, a representative pointed out.
Advocates argue that a relaxation of testing outreach now would come at the wrong time. As of early August, there were 538 coronavirus cases across 121 buildings. In May, there were 144 cases in 52 buildings, the SRO advocates said.
The health department did not directly answer questions about its response to the Chinatown SRO case but said workers are actively monitoring the neighborhood. Those who test positive are offered rooms and building management is notified about a case and provided guidance, city officials said.
Placements ultimately depend on test results and resident needs, they added.
“We know that many of our most vulnerable residents are living in congregate and semi-congregate settings,” a spokesperson said. “It’s why we have strong systems in place to prevent and respond to cases as quickly as possible. People continue to get tested and may be awaiting results. We will continue to promote and emphasize the importance of public safety and public health education on COVID-19 in a culturally appropriate way for all our residents in Chinatown.”
The order requires SRO building or operators to clean common areas within 12 hours of receiving notice of a case. The health department must provide face coverings to residents and staff within the the same time and contact the remaining building residents and close contacts of the the coronavirus positive tenant for testing or hotels within 48 hours.
The department must also provide SRO tenants written information about their ability to be placed in a quarantine room and provide those in the rooms with three meals a day, adequate heat, and clean restrooms for free for up to 14 days.
The emergency order reenactment will be heard by the full Board of Supervisors by Sept. 15, Supervisor Aaron Peskin said.