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Ongoing coronavirus outbreaks in Orange County have ballooned to 17 homeless shelters – with 417 homeless people and dozens of staff infected in total and one death so far – Orange County officials are acknowledging publicly for the first time, in response to questions from Voice of OC.

The ongoing outbreaks are prompting calls from activists for the county to reinstate a program that sheltered at-risk homeless seniors in motels, now that federal officials are agreeing to cover 100 percent of the costs.

OC Health Care Agency officials are declining to identify which shelters have outbreaks, saying that’s “personal health information” and revealing their locations could discourage shelters from asking for help.

“For the 17 shelters currently experiencing an outbreak, a cumulative total number of cases associated with these 17 outbreaks includes 417 persons experiencing homelessness (PEH),” said Marc Meulman, chief of operations for public health services at the Orange County Health Care Agency, in a written response to Voice of OC’s questions.

“An additional 69 cases have been identified among shelter staff as part of these 17 active outbreaks.”

One homeless person died from the current outbreaks, Meulman said. County officials declined to disclose who died and which shelter they were at, saying they “would not release personal information.”

Health Care Agency response teams have been working to contain the outbreaks through testing, isolation and other measures, he added.

Orange County has seen a signficant increase in homeless deaths during the pandemic. At least 330 homeless people died in 2020, up from slightly over 200 the prior year.

Until Voice of OC asked questions about it this week, there was no public discussion or acknowledgement of the ongoing outbreaks by the county’s top elected leaders who oversee homeless services: the Board of Supervisors.

County supervisors have not had a public discussion about shelter outbreaks since at least December. And they haven’t received any memos about it since Dec. 22, when county health officials noted “a significant increase” in shelter outbreaks in a memo that was not published publicly.

That’s set to change, in response to Voice of OC’s inquiries.

After being questioned about the outbreaks from a reporter Friday, county Supervisor Doug Chaffee said he called County of Orange CEO Frank Kim to ensure there’s a public update at the board’s next meeting.

“I am surprised. I didn’t think there was anything quite that bad,” Chaffee told Voice of OC when he was first told about the ongoing ourbreaks.

“We didn’t get [an update] last time about the shelters,” he added. “I will, at our next board meeting, make a point of asking that we do have one.”

Later, after speaking with Kim, Chaffee said: “I have a promise, at our next board meeting we will have a report on the homeless situation.”

“It’s bad, you know. Shelters are not conducive to spacing very well. So [we] try to limit those that are within the shelter,” Chaffee said. Only three shelters are operated by the county government itself, he added.

The other supervisors – Andrew Do, Lisa Bartlett and Don Wagner – didn’t return messages for comment on the shelter outbreaks..

During their two public discussions on coronavirus this month during board meetings, supervisors have not asked any questions about shelter outbreaks. And as cases have surged to record-high levels, county officials have stopped their weekly news conferences on coronavirus.

Orange County’s top public health official, Dr. Clayton Chau said shelters are doing everything they can to prevent outbreaks, but that it can be difficult to prevent in a places that are, by their very nature, group living environments.

“That’s why we work together closely with the homeless shelter provider to ensure that they do the best they can,” Chau said in a Friday interview with Voice of OC.

“Their staff have to wear their mask and stay physically distanced from folks. 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.”

Health Care Agency officials are working with a pharmacy chain to offer vaccines to shelter residents who are over the age of 65, Chau added.

One of the key challenges in shelters, he said, is balancing health measures to prevent the spread of disease with people’s innate desire to see friends and family and go in and out of the shelters.

“When you tell people you can’t come in in certain hours, or impose this rule or that rule from a communicable disease perspective, we have to be really careful,” Chau said.

“I know you’ve heard from certain lawyers that you can’t restrict people from moving. But in congregate living you have to make sure you have certain rules to protect everybody.”

One of those lawyers says the county could be preventing many of these outbreaks by simply re-implementing its Project Roomkey hotel program that housed seniors and others at high risk if they got Covid.

The federal government will now cover 100 percent of the costs of non-congregate homeless shelter through September under an order issued last week, noted the lawyer, Brooke Weitzman.

“We’re seeing the county choose not to use available money to save lives in the midst of an outbreak, at the same time the county is using $350 million in mental health dollars on the construction and the first year of operation to turn Musick jail into a mental health jail,” said Weitzman, a high-profile attorney and advocate for homeless people.

The outbreaks, she said, are “precisely what we told the county would happen a year ago when we begged them to implement Project Roomkey to the fullest extent possible, and to end congregate shelter during a pandemic.”

“And it’s exactly what we told them would happen again in October when they shut down Project Roomkey. And once again we begged them not to shut down Project Roomkey.”

“We know that there are many cities in Orange County, that if they had access to the money, would be operating project Roomkey. But the money passes through the county, and the county has made the choice to make the money not accessible.”

In response, county CEO Frank Kim said the county is still running the Project Roomkey program for homeless people who are infected with coronavirus or have symptoms.

But Weitzman says “the whole point of Roomkey is to stop the spread” in the first place, before high-risk people are sick.

“Those people over 65 in a congregate shelter should not be in a congregate shelter. There is no excuse,” she said.

Kim didn’t return a message asking if the county is considering Project Roomkey for high-risk homeless people who haven’t yet gotten Covid, now that the federal government has agreed to cover all of the costs.

Mayor Vicente Sarmiento of Santa Ana, the county’s second most-populous city, said he was saddened to hear of the ongoing outbreaks and deaths.

“It’s very sad to hear that people are getting sick and are passing away as a result of this pandemic, because of the conditions in the shelters, because of the conditions in jails, and just conditions in the community,” Sarmiento told Voice of OC on Friday.

Mayor Harry Sidhu of Anaheim, the county’s most populous city, didn’t return a phone message for comment.

Instead, a city spokesman provided a statement attributing the outbreaks to the ongoing surge in coronavirus cases.

“While we don’t want to see cases anywhere, no one should be surprised to see them at shelters or anywhere as we work through a winter surge that has touched all parts of our city and county,” said the statement from Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster.

“It speaks to how challenging this surge has been, as Anaheim shelters undergo daily hospital-grade disinfecting and other extensive safeguards to protect residents,” he added.

“At Anaheim Emergency Shelter, where we saw several cases, the operator has worked closely with the city and the Orange County Health Care Agency to stem the spread by utilizing isolation trailers and temporarily relocating some residents.”

Meanwhile, Weitzman says homeless seniors – afraid of being exposed to Covid in group living shelters – are now left with no option but to sleep on the streets.

“We have people with serious medical conditions who have nowhere to turn. It’s cold and it’s wet and we have people dying of exposure” to the elements, Weitzman said.

The homeless death toll from the effects of the pandemic, she said, is “astronomically higher than just those who tested positive after they died.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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