Outbreaks hit multiple Bay Area homeless shelters

Homeless shelters throughout the Bay Area are struggling with COVID outbreaks as the ultra-contagious Omicron variant continues to spread, sparking renewed worry about the safety of some of the Bay Area’s most vulnerable residents.

The Division Circle Navigation Center, a large shelter in San Francisco that also helps occupants access medical, mental health and substance abuse care, reported more than half of its 88 residents — plus three staff members — have been infected. Another 17 residents and nine staffers have tested positive at San Francisco’s MSC-South shelter.

In Santa Clara County, three outbreaks have been identified as shelters struggle to keep up with the fast-spreading variant. The Georgia Travis House, a shelter for women and families, reported 11 cases among staff and residents. Julian Street Inn, which offers transitional housing for people with mental illness, and the Boccardo Reception Center, Santa Clara County’s largest shelter, also have reported smaller outbreaks of fewer than 10 cases.

“Every day we’re getting notifications of here’s another covid positive test,” said Andrea Urton, CEO of HomeFirst, which runs the Boccardo shelter. But while case rates at HomeFirst facilities are rising, so far the organization has avoided outbreaks like the one Boccardo saw in December 2020, which infected 55 people.

Because the Omicron variant spreads so quickly, precautions shelters have taken since early in the pandemic — frequent testing, social distancing, mandated mask-wearing, and more — likely won’t be enough to curb outbreaks as people sleep and eat together in close quarters, said Dr. Margot Kushel, professor of medicine and director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations.

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