Santa Rosa homeless shelter experiencing COVID-19 outbreak

Santa Rosa's homeless shelter is swiftly being overwhelmed by a COVID-19 outbreak.

And a startling number of infections are among vaccinated residents.

"I think it punctuates the fact that no vaccine is 100 percent effective," said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers, who has been monitoring the rising numbers.  

At the 156-bed Sam Jones Shelter, there are 59 confirmed cases.

Results are pending on 26 more, and if they are positive, the outbreak will encompass more than half the residents.

It began with the detection of two people, two weeks ago.

"This staff was never trained for something of this magnitude," said resident Caryn Munsterman, speaking outside the shelter on Finley Avenue.

Munsterman said she and others staying at the shelter are being tested twice a week.

"What happened here, I believe, is a fluke."

The shelter's last case was in January, and Mayor Rogers says Catholic Charities has run the shelter competently the pandemic.

"What I can tell you is Sam Jones Hall has not changed its protocols since March of 2020."

But the outbreak is a dramatic setback.

Emphasis is being renewed on sanitation, masks, social distance and testing.  

"We're not putting new people in the shelter at this time, and we've been able to isolate the folks who have been exposed."

Some residents are quarantined in a new $3 million annex the city built on the shelter grounds during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Others are in a Best Western motel in Healdsburg, which has space for 60 people.

It was a Sonoma County alternate care site for 13 months during the pandemic, now opening its doors again.

"You have a high rate of folks who are unvaccinated mixing with some who were," said Rogers, explaining that unique factors explain why about half alf the positive cases are fully vaccinated residents.

"They are a vulnerable population in congregate care settings who are around each other all the time."

Of 9 shelter residents hospitalized, 6 were vaccinated, but all were over 55 years old with pre-existing medical conditions.

"I think we're going to have a conversation about what the protocols are," added Rogers, noting that most shelters, as emergency services, do not require vaccination for entry.

"What we are going to do is look and see if other places are doing it differently and if they're having a different result."

The highly transmissible Delta variant is suspected, but not confirmed, in the shelter cluster.

It's also possible the vaccine residents received made a difference.

Johnson and Johnson is often preferred for homeless people, because it's easier to manage with one dose.

But it's also somewhat less effective.

Shelter residents also admit, like everyone else, they relaxed a bit about COVID-19 precautions in recent months.

"When the CDC started lifting the mask mandate, everyone became more complacent, even myself," said Munsterman.