San Francisco announces 70 new cases of COVID-19 at homeless shelter

San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced 70 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 at a South of Market neighborhood homeless shelter during an early Friday afternoon press conference.

The Multi-Service Center South homeless shelter, located at 525 5th Street, is currently housing 100 people. 

Of the 70 confirmed cases, 68 are residents and two are staffers.

San Francisco's largest shelter, MSC South, is capable of housing 340 members, but capacity was reduced several weeks ago amid coronavirus concerns.

San Franciscans have been sheltering at home for weeks to slow the spread of disease, but for those without a permanent residence, it's difficult or even impossible to isolate. 

Supervisors and advocates for the homeless have been calling on the mayor's office for weeks to move homeless residents from shelters and the streets into empty hotel rooms in order for them to properly isolate. 

Despite the outbreak sickening dozens, Breed said on Friday, "We were on top of it." 

“The reason why we were able to act fast is number one, we had hotel rooms available and we had plans to staff up hotel rooms as rapidly as we possibly can in case an outbreak occurred," Breed said. "Part of acquiring hotel rooms and thinning out our shelters has truly helped in this particular case because as of last night, there were only 100 residents in the shelter." 

City officials are now managing the situation in part by transitioning the shelter into a makeshift medical facility complete with experts and personnel in place for support and to treat those with coronavirus. 

Breed said city officials knew congregate living settings had the potential of becoming hot spots. She cited Laguna Honda Hospital, SROs, navigation centers and shelters as examples. 

Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco's Director of Public Health, said although the matter was serious, it was not unexpected. 

Many among the city's homeless population of about 8,000 have chronic health conditions and are vulnerable to dying from the coronavirus, Colfax said. 

The health department is working to follow congregate setting protocols including cleaning and disinfecting shelters, screening staff, and investigating to identify close contacts of those who tested positive at the shelter. 

For now, a mass testing strategy for all guests and staff at MSC South, whether they show symptoms or not, is being employed.

MSC South is in District 6, which is in Supervisor Matt Haney's jurisdiction. He has been critical of the city's approach towards the homeless during the pandemic. 

"Shame on the city for not protecting our most vulnerable. We knew this was going to happen, and how to prevent it," he wrote on Twitter after learning about the outbreak himself through the press conference. 

"Since day 1, we've said move these people to hotels, give people temperature checks, masks, gloves, ensure social distancing.  Didn't happen, so this happens," Haney wrote in a Twitter thread. "Even if the hotels take a little more time, the shelter providers a month ago were asking for thermometers, masks, gloves, adequate social distancing.  They didn't do it. If they've been 'preparing for this for weeks,' this is an obvious failure."

"Nobody should be living in those environments," Haney said. "So, what I'm saying is move these people now, and you should have moved them a month ago." 

144 guests and staff at MSC South were tested for the disease on Friday. Health officials said of those 70 positive cases, none are seriously ill. However, one former guest of the shelter is in the hospital. 

Colfax said the COVID-19 outbreak at the shelter does not mean there is significant greater risk to the general public. 

As of Friday, public health officials said there are 797 cases of COVID-19 in San Francisco and a total of 13 deaths.