People line up outside the St. Vincent de Paul Society Multi-Service Center, also known as MSC South. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Shelter workers call for increased testing, hazard pay

City currently testing only those showing symptoms of the coronavirus

Asymptomatic staff members are still not being tested at homeless and supportive housing facilities 10 days after city officials learned of a novel coronavirus outbreak in San Francisco’s largest homeless shelter, service providers at these facilities said Monday.

“We are the forgotten ones on the front line,” said Stanley Edwards, a 65-year-old health care union member who’s worked in the Northern California shelter system for more than a decade. “It’s hard to balance our lives and family’s health with work. We need incentive pay during this crisis. We also need access to free testing so that we know if we are exposing clients and our families.”

On Monday, an online media briefing brought Supervisor Matt Haney together with homeless shelter and supportive housing service providers to support a resolution calling on The City to provide testing and contact-tracing for residents and workers at these facilities, along with incentive pay.

Haney, who introduced the resolution last week, said he heard from Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of the Emergency Operations Center, that there weren’t plans to test everyone in shelters and navigation centers — which amounts to about 2,000 residents and 300 to 500 staff, according to Haney.

“The entire city is dedicated to focusing resources on preventing the spread of the virus right now,” Haney said. “It’s obvious that an effective smart use of resources would be to test in environments where people are living in close quarters and are especially susceptible to the virus.”

The spread of the novel coronavirus among more than 100 people at San Francisco’s largest homeless shelter, MSC South, prompted worries that the virus could spread in similar congregate settings. Haney said that as of Friday, testing became available for workers at these sites, but only those showing symptoms.

Department of Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax said that testing for staff and residents at shelters and navigation centers is done on the basis of what the department knows about a specific situation.

For example, San Francisco tested everyone staying and working at MSC South — San Francisco’s largest shelter — while testing was done “in a more limited scale” at the Division Navigation Center, where one resident tested positive, he said.

“We need to ensure that the populations who are prioritized for testing are people who need it most, and that includes people who are symptomatic with COVID-19, people who have had a high-risk exposure and health care workers and first responders,” Colfax said. “I want to say especially in those first two groups, there are a number of people experiencing homelessness.”

More than 10,000 people live in transitional and supportive housing, according to the resolution. Joe Williams, who works in supportive housing, said in these settings dozens of people are often using the same kitchens, restrooms and showers.

The resolution also calls for The City to augment contracts with new funding for incentive pay for these frontline service workers. Finding and retaining staff has been especially difficult due to workers often being part of the population vulnerable to the virus and unable to attend work.

Haney said that in some places, as many as half of service workers aren’t showing up to work.

Nonprofits aren’t yet sure whether they’ll receive sufficient funding from The City to be able to cover the costs associated with providing incentive pay for staff, said Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services.

The resolution also calls for contact-tracing at these sites, which would entail a close analysis and investigation of who may have come into contact with an infected person, to ensure they have access to testing and care. This hasn’t happened in all of the SROs or supportive housing sites, according to Haney.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include additional information.

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