coronavirus outbreak

Man Living in Shelter Feared COVID-19 Outbreak Just Days Before 70 People Tested Positive

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At least 70 people living inside one of San Francisco’s largest homeless shelters have tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreak comes in the wake of an NBC Bay Area investigation that highlighted safety concerns and the potential for an outbreak at that very same shelter.

The coronavirus thrives on large groups of people in confined spaces, and that’s precisely what conditions were like for the roughly 3,700 people who were housed in shelters when the virus began to spread in San Francisco.

Jake Shak, 31, spoke with NBC Bay Area last week when he was living at the MSC South shelter – the same shelter that is now the site of the outbreak.

Shak warned that the sort of cramped, community-style living inside the shelter would allow the virus to spread quickly – the way he’s seen other illnesses get passed around there.

“I’ve been sick in there,” Shak said. “…it’s not hard to catch germs that aren’t yours.”

Shak, like many others at the shelter, have since been relocated to a nearby hotel. He said he’s doing well and gets meals delivered right to his room three times per day.

So far, San Francisco has leased more than 1,100 hotel rooms to house the most vulnerable – that is, people age 60 or older and those with underlying health conditions.

But there are still about 5,000 people living on the streets. There simply aren’t enough shelters, and those that are open are too crowded. So, in an effort to alleviate some of the pressure, San Francisco earlier this week made an abrupt policy change and decided to lease even more hotel rooms. The goal is to alleviate some of the pressure on shelters so that people can practice social distancing.

So far, it is not clear when that will happen or when it will be safer for those who are homeless. The city responded to NBC Bay Area’s request for that information by saying they hope it will happen “very shortly.”

Meanwhile, the price tag for this continues to mount. San Francisco will pay $35 million for about three months of hotel rooms, although the city does hope the federal government will reimburse them for a significant chunk of that.

"The city and our nonprofit partners are battling two simultaneous health emergencies," said Abigail Stewart Khan, interim director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. "The ongoing crisis of homelessness and the compounding issue of the COVID-19 pandemic."

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