Comfort Inn & Suites near Oakland International Airport, one of two Oakland hotels leased by the state to house homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Google Street View

East Bay service providers are scrambling to avoid a repeat of what happened in San Francisco last week, where officials were unable to avoid an outbreak of COVID-19 from occurring at one the city’s largest homeless shelters. More than 70 people were infected.

Critics say San Francisco could have prevented the outbreak by isolating homeless people in separate hotel rooms, but the city didn’t pursue such a plan until after the outbreak.

Kathleen Clanon, the agency medical director for Alameda County Health Care Service Agency, said at a board of supervisors meeting on Monday that there was a “cluster” of people at a homeless shelter showing COVID-19 symptoms. Clanon did not identify the shelter.

Alameda County spokesperson Jerri Applegate Randrup told Berkeleyside the shelter in question is located in Berkeley and the operator notified the county about the potential outbreak on Friday. Fewer than 10 people there are suspected of having contracted COVID-19, said Randrup, and all of the symptomatic shelter residents, and an undisclosed number of other people who were in close contact with them, were moved to Oakland’s Comfort Inn and Suites to be isolated while the county awaits test results.

However, a spokesman for the city of Berkeley said that while “fewer than 10” people who were showing the symptoms of COVID-19 were moved recently to the Comfort Inn, they had not been clustered in one shelter. They came from a variety of locales in Berkeley, according to Matthai Chakko. The results from those people’s tests have not come back, so the city does not know if they actually have the virus, he said.

The Comfort Inn is one of two Oakland hotels leased by the state to house homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic under Project Roomkey. The county and a nonprofit contractor have slowly been filling the Comfort Inn’s rooms with unsheltered people who are showing symptoms of COVID-19. Non-symptomatic but medically vulnerable people are being housed separately in the nearby Radisson Hotel. Berkeley has moved or is in the process of moving around 31 medically-fragile homeless people to the Radisson Hotel, said Chakko.

Since the outbreak in San Francisco, Abode Services, the nonprofit that operates the two Oakland hotels for the county, has rushed to fill more of the rooms.

“I’m sure you heard about the shelter in San Francisco with a recent outbreak of 70 individuals testing positive for COVID-19,” Vivian Wan, chief operating officer of Abode, wrote in an email sent to other nonprofits over the weekend. “We want to do everything possible to avoid this in Alameda County.”

Wan wrote that her group expects a “surge” of homeless people will need to be moved out of congregate shelters, and that Abode has asked other homelessness service providers to lend additional staff to work as “shelter monitors” for the hotels.

County officials have given several different estimates of the numbers of people currently housed in the two hotels.

Clanon told the board of supervisors on Monday that about 130 people are being housed at the Radisson and Comfort Inn.

Wan of Abode Services wrote in her email to other service providers that there are about 100 nonsymptomatic but medically vulnerable people living at the Radisson alone, which has 272 beds total, according to the county.

“We want to TRIPLE those numbers this week,” she wrote about the effort to move homeless people out of shelters and off the streets.

Alameda County’s effort to move homeless people into hotels is small compared to the overall need. Last year, the county counted 8,022 homeless people, with about half living in Oakland.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and...