LOS ANGELES (AP) — A cluster of coronavirus cases at a second California homeless shelter has infected at least 56 people, officials said Tuesday, and Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged the state’s testing of homeless people has been inadequate and promised more.
The cases at Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles were identified after 200 tests were administered, LA County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said. She said during the county’s midday briefing that 43 people had tested positive.
Later in the day 13 more positive cases were identified, said Andy Bales, the mission’s CEO.
“I had to break the news to those 13 people, and I won’t forget the looks on their faces,” Bales said. He called the virus “an unseen, ferocious monster.”
Only 16 of those who tested positive showed symptoms and the results of more tests are pending, officials said.
Union Rescue Mission is a sprawling complex in the heart of the Skid Row section where for many decades a large segment of the city’s homeless population has lived. The mission reported its first positive case on March 28 and after the cluster was confirmed this week everyone was quarantined on-site and no new homeless residents were allowed to check in.
Ferrer said county officials hoped to increase testing over the next week at shelters and other institutional settings like nursing homes.
“It just makes sense now that we’re able to do more testing both of symptomatic people and asymptomatic people who are very high risk and live in these congregate living situations,” she said during the daily county briefing.
Union Rescue Mission, which regularly had about 1,000 residents, is now down to 414 as officials try to give each person 50 square feet (4.65 square meters) of space, Bales said. A quarantine area has been established under a temporary structure in a courtyard and beds have been set up in a boardroom, a cafeteria and a chapel, he said.
California has an estimated 150,000 homeless people, the most in the nation. In the early days of the virus outbreak, Newsom identified the homeless as one of the most vulnerable populations and started Project Roomkey to find and lease 15,000 hotel rooms to get people off the streets.
The program is ramping up now and among those in rooms are 184 people who were moved out of Union Rescue Mission. The hotel rooms set aside are occupied by asymptomatic people and those who begin to show symptoms are sent to medical sheltering sites with quarantine and isolation rooms.
Homeless residents who are asymptomatic would qualify for tests under new protocols announced Tuesday by state health officials. California will broaden guidelines for who gets tested by including people who live or work in high-risk settings like shelters, the Department of Health said. Previously only those hospitalized or showing symptoms got tested.
Testing of the homeless has been very limited. What’s believed to be the first widespread testing at a California shelter occurred earlier this month at Multi-Service Center South, San Francisco’s largest facility. So far 96 homeless people and 10 staff at Multi-Service Center South were confirmed infected. Most were asymptomatic.
Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s public health department director, said the city doesn’t have enough testing swabs to randomly test everyone at shelters or in crowded single-room occupancy hotels.
Newsom acknowledged shortcomings in the state’s testing efforts.
“Yes, more tests should be available,” he said. “More tests will be made available.”
Newsom said the state has signed a contract to expand tests in rural areas that would give priority to vulnerable populations like those in homeless shelters and nursing homes.
The coronavirus is spread by coughs and sneezes and the homeless are seen as especially vulnerable because they often live close together in unsanitary conditions.
For most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe life-threatening illness, including pneumonia, and death.
Los Angeles on Monday began sending medical teams to the streets to provide homeless people with health screenings and fast-result tests for the virus.
More than 150 tests were administered in a new pop-up clinic on Skid Row that’s staffed by the Los Angeles Fire Department. Those who are infected will be offered transportation to makeshift shelters or hotels where they can be treated while staying isolated.
Advocates for the homeless have been calling on San Francisco’s mayor to place every homeless person into hotel rooms and to test widely in areas susceptible to outbreaks. The Tenderloin neighborhood holds many single-room occupancy hotels, as well as homeless who sleep in tents or in the open, on cardboard.
In the meantime, places that help the homeless have had to adapt. St. Anthony’s, for example, installed a conveyer belt to dispense to-go meals to clients and also set up a pop-up tent for people who need information.
Calder Lorenz, advocacy program manager at San Francisco’s St. Anthony Foundation, said broad testing would give people in the Tenderloin a better sense of the gravity of the pandemic and show them that City Hall caress about their health too.
“People feel abandoned, unheard, and rejected. This can spread misinformation in communities where sheltering in place is not an option,” he said.
Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles, Janie Har in San Francisco and Adam Beam in Sacramento contributed to this report.