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San Francisco opens COVID-19 center for homeless in SoMa

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“The worst is yet to come” warns mayor

A building.
St. Vincent De Paul Society’s Multi-Service Center South.

One of San Francisco’s largest homeless shelters, located at 525 Fifth Street, will serve as a medical center for COVID-19 patients after an outbreak there sickened dozens of people, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced Friday.

In a video press conference, Breed said that 70 people (two staff members and 68 guests,) tested positive for COVID-19 at the St. Vincent De Paul Society’s multi-service center last week.

Breed says the center will now house novel coronavirus patients not ill enough to be transferred to hospitals and who are not being isolated elsewhere, many of them homeless.

The center previously housed more than 340 persons, but Breed said by the time testing began among the population there last week the tenancy was down to 100, as the city transferred others to hotel rooms.

As Curbed SF’s conversations with SF’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) staff previously indicated, it was almost impossible to imagine an outbreak in a shelter not happening sooner or later.

The city delayed pushing shelters to practice basic social distancing for fear that creating adequate space for it would mean turning residents out onto the street. Current HSH guidelines only tell shelter management to distance residents “to the best of their ability.”

Dr. Grant Colfax, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH), said that two shelter guests tested positive for COVID-19 the first weekend of March, prompting the city to test everyone there.

Last Wednesday, Multi-Service Center South had five confirmed cases. By Friday, it was 70. The original two patients are in isolation.

Colfax says that DPH doctors and nurses will tend sick residents at the SoMa site. He added that the outbreak at the shelter “does not mean there is [necessarily] greater risk to the general public” and praised SF residents for keeping new novel coronavirus cases in the city relatively low in recent weeks by obeying public health directives.

However, Colfax said that “the worst is yet to come” in the weeks ahead. Breed used the exact same phrase in her comments.

In related news, over the weekend the San Francisco Examiner reported that the HSH may open tent encampments for homeless residents—”safe sleeping sites” in City Hall parlance—open-air sites with populations of up to 60 people.

Tents will be kept 200 square feet from each other and two staff members will be on site around the block, says HSH chief Jeff Kositsky.

The encampments are a potentially bitter irony after SF spent many yours and considerable resources trying to prevent homeless people from pitching tents in public, as the city labors to find new ways to quash potential outbreaks among unhoused populations.