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COVID-19 Cases Spread in Homeless Shelters Without Report From OC Health Officials

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A surge of 417 COVID-19 cases has been reported among people experiencing homelessness throughout Orange County, hitting as many as 17 homeless shelters. 

Out of these cases, one person experiencing homelessness has died, and 69 cases reportedly involve shelter staff.  

Orange County Public Health officials are attributing this surge to the difficulty of close living arrangements in homeless shelters.

“In a congregate setting like that it’s very hard. When you have one case, you’re bound to have other cases because of the proximity of their living situation,” Orange County public health official Dr. Clayton Chau told Voice of OC.

Approximately 863 people experiencing homelessness have tested positive and six have died from the virus in Orange County since the beginning of the pandemic. However, this number could be underestimated by these official reports.

In response to recent cases, activists have been advocating for the reinstatement of Project Roomkey, a California state program enacted at the beginning of the pandemic that provided isolated rooms in hotels and motels for people experiencing homelessness. In Orange County, the program ended in October and has not restarted despite an announcement by the Biden administration that 100% of funds would be reimbursed. 

“These emergency protective measures will protect public health by isolating the medically vulnerable, thinning out the shelter population for social distancing, slowing the rate of spread of COVID-19 and, in turn, flattening the curve,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said for the project’s announcement. 

Several homeless shelters have said to the New University that they were taking precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19 among their shelters. However, they declined or did not respond to questions regarding whether or not they experienced COVID-19 cases, saying that it was “private information.”

“We do weekly testing here at our facility and have hosted a space for vaccinations to be administered to the unhoused. We also do a very thorough cleaning in and around our facility daily,” Midnight Missions Communications Coordinator Robert Medina told the New University.

Midnight Missions operates multiple homeless shelters and other services in the Orange County and LA area. An employee at the Courtyard location in Santa Ana confirmed to the New University that they conduct weekly testing. The employee also said the current location planned on closing last Friday. 

“The shelter was built out of an old bus terminal. It was never meant for human habitation,” the employee said. The shelter will be transferring to a new location that will have “all the necessities for human habitat like laundry and a dining area.”

The Costa Mesa location of the Bridges at Kraemer homeless shelter said they implemented coronavirus safety measures, but declined to answer if they had any positive cases.  

“We sanitize surfaces every hour, wear masks, wash our hands. We have testing every month. A person has to quarantine for two weeks before being admitted,” an employee said.

No official report has been released yet by Orange County health officials about the COVID-19 cases at homeless shelters. 

In response to hearing about these cases, Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee told the Voice of OC “I have a promise, at our next board meeting we will have a report on the homeless situation.” 

No mention of COVID-19 cases among the homeless community was made at the Feb. 9 board meeting Chaffee referred to. 

A total of 330 unhoused people died in OC last year, according to the Orange County Coroner’s Office — 130 more deaths than in 2019.

Kallen Hittner is a City News Intern for the 2021 winter quarter. He can be reached at khittner@uci.edu.