Half of California's 15,000 Hotel Rooms for the Homeless Are Empty

California has leased 15,000 hotel and motel rooms, mostly for people experiencing homelessness, but about half of them are sitting vacant, The Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday.

Figures from Gov. Gavin Newsom's office obtained by the Los Angeles Times revealed that 7,919 hotel rooms are full, leaving the remaining 7,700 empty. At most, the filled rooms are providing shelter for less than 5% of California's 151,000 unhoused individuals, the paper calculated.

Even before the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, the homelessness crisis persisted as a top issue in California, and particularly in the Bay Area.

Bay Area counties have mobilized resources to protect residents who are homeless during the pandemic, including leasing hotel rooms, RVs or other temporary shelters. But advocates for people experiencing homelessness in the region have told KQED that officials are struggling to implement health and safety guidelines for limiting the spread of COVID-19.

In San Francisco, officials recently launched city-sanctioned open-air encampments called "safe sleeping sites" to prevent another shelter outbreak and help unhoused people remain socially distant.

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Last week, Newsom unveiled his revised budget, which scales back his plan to address housing and homelessness in California. However, the proposed plan would still fund the purchase of the leased hotel and motel rooms and turn them over to local governments to transition them into permanent supportive housing.

— Audrey Garces (@AudreyGarces)

Solano County Confirms First COVID-19 and Flu Coinfection

Health officials in Solano County confirmed that a resident has tested positive for both the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and the flu, underscoring the importance of getting a flu shot. The coinfection represents the county's first known case of someone contracting both viruses at the same time.

The individual is under 65, has no underlying health conditions, and works in "the broad health care sector," which Solano County Public Health Officer Dr. Bela Matyas defined as not just hospitals and clinics, but nursing homes and other congregate care settings.

The infected person is isolating at home and seems to be recovering, Matyas said in a press release.

But the combination of viruses can be severe.

"With the likelihood of both COVID-19 and seasonal flu activity this winter, contracting either disease may weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to the other disease,” Matyas warned.

The good news, he said, is that you can protect yourself from the flu the same way you do from COVID-19: Stay home when sick; wear a mask; cough into your elbow; and wash your hands.

He also emphasized the importance of getting a flu shot, which can help prevent people from catching the flu or at least lessen its effects. That way, if someone does contract the coronavirus, their immune system will be in better shape to fight it off.

Marin County and San Francisco have yet to see coronavirus and flu coinfections, their health departments said.

— Laura Klivans (@lauraklivans)

3 Other States Join California's COVID-19 Vaccine Review Committee

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday that the governors of Washington, Oregon and Nevada have signed on to California's working group, created to independently review any COVID-19 vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The three governors will identify and assign public health experts to join the group.

“This [committee] is focused on the ethics of distribution,” Newsom said during a press briefing Tuesday. “Who should be prioritized? How do we allocate the supplies?”

Newsom added that vulnerable communities should get priority for receiving the vaccine as supply becomes available.

Physicians and scientists with expertise in immunization and public health were first appointed to the working group last week.

One of the group’s tasks is to monitor data from vaccine trials. The governor said the committee should not cause any delays in the distribution of a potential vaccine.

“In fact, we would argue quite the contrary. It's going to increase transparency and trust ... to make sure that we're not doing anything to meet an arbitrary deadline or meet a political deadline,” he said. “We're not just going to take someone's assurance. We're going to make sure that we are objectively reviewing and able to put our stamp of approval."

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Also announced Tuesday, several counties were given permission to move into the state's less restrictive COVID-19 tiers, which govern which businesses and activities can resume:

  • Moving into the red tier for “substantial risk”: Glenn and Mendocino counties
  • Moving into the orange tier for “moderate risk”: Contra Costa, Marin, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties
  • Moving into the yellow tier for “minimal risk”: Calaveras County

Only nine counties remain in the purple tier for “widespread risk.” Check the status of a county here.

— Monica Lam (@monicazlam)

Latino Community in Fruitvale Hard-Hit by COVID-19, Study Finds

A recent testing study of COVID-19 in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood has found that the Latino community there continues to be hit hard, with a particular impact to the Mayan immigrant community.

The two-day study tested more than 1,000 people last month, and found 39 with the active virus. But many more people had antibodies, showing they’d already had COVID-19.

About one in 10 people tested positive for the antibodies overall —  that number jumped to more than one-in-four for Mayan-speaking Latinos.

"According to some of the data, [Latinos in Fruitvale] have some of the most crowded living conditions out of most of the groups we've interviewed," said Chris Iglesias with East Oakland-based Unity Council.

"And a lot of them are essential workers. And they're still working."

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Iglesias said the pandemic is hurting Fruitvale residents economically as well.

"We started seeing things, almost immediate needs in the community, around just the basics, like food," he said.

Researchers with UCSF, who conducted the study in partnership with community groups such as La Familia, found that over 60 percent of Mayan-speaking people in Fruitvale don’t always have enough to eat.

"The COVID PCR and antibody data confirm that Latinos in the East Bay are disproportionately infected with COVID-19," said Dr. Alicia Fernandez, professor of medicine and director of the UCSF Latinx Center of Excellence, in a statement. "More testing and targeted public health messaging are needed, as are efforts to make essential work safer," she said.

Iglesias and his organization are calling for more support from Alameda County, the state and federal government. Aaron Ortiz, CEO of La Familia, which provides mental health and community support services in the Bay Area, also asked the city and county for more help.

"We are begging you," he said.

— Alex Emslie (@sfnewsreporter)

This story includes reporting from Bay City News.

SF Reopens Over 180 Public Playgrounds After 7-Month Closure

After seven months of closure due to COVID-19, San Francisco officials on Wednesday announced the reopening of more than 180 outdoor playgrounds in the city.

Families and children are being allowed to return to the playgrounds, but with strict new capacity limits and rules in place. Recreation and Park Department monitors will be stationed at the city's busiest playgrounds to educate families about the new rules.

"We know kids and parents have been missing playgrounds since the end of March, and I'm excited that we're now at a place where we can safely reopen them," Mayor London Breed said in a statement. "We hope this brings families and kids some joy during an otherwise challenging time."

As part of the new playground rules, visitors are being asked to limit playground times to 30 minutes when others are present. Additionally, all children must stay 6-feet apart from those who are not in their immediate household.

To preserve enough space, only one adult is allowed to accompany each child on playgrounds. Caregivers are being asked to avoid using cellphones and to supervise their children at all times, and remove them if they start crying to prevent virus-spreading droplets.

All children over two years old are required to wear masks. And children under two must stay within arm's reach of their caregiver and are not allowed to play on structures that hold more than one child at a time. Visitors are also prohibited from eating or drinking at the playgrounds.

"Yes, there are rules," Recreation and Park Director Phil Ginsburg said during press conference Wednesday at Merced Heights Playground. "Let’s all do the right thing so that our children and San Francisco families can be healthy."

Hand-washing stations have also been added at 51 city playgrounds that don't already have restrooms, officials said.

In addition to the reopening of playgrounds, officials also announced that six of the city's playgrounds have recently been renovated under the Let'sPlaySF! initiative, a partnership between the city and the San Francisco Parks Alliance.

— Daniel Montes, Bay City News and Marco Siler-Gonzales, KQED (@mijo_marco)

California's Halloween Guidance: No Trick-or-Treating, No Parties

Please don’t go trick-or-treating, state public health officials urged Californians on Tuesday. And no Halloween parties, either, as both present a high risk of spreading COVID-19.

“The whole act of going door-to-door in groups, ringing doorbells, digging into buckets of delicious candy … create a risk of spreading COVID-19,” said California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly at a press briefing Tuesday afternoon.

In addition, should a COVID-19 case turn up, it would be very difficult to conduct adequate contact tracing, Ghaly added.

The safest way to celebrate is at home or virtually, public health officials said. Here’s a list of ideas state officials offered, both for celebrating Halloween and observing Día de los Muertos safely during the pandemic:

  • Create a haunted house at home or decorate your home and yard
  • Conduct a candy hunt in your home or yard (see the advice on small gatherings below)
  • Face painting and pumpkin carving
  • Design face masks that match your Halloween costumes
  • Hold an online costume or pumpkin carving contest
  • Do car-based outings, like a drive-in movie or tour displays in your car
  • Visit a Día de los Muertos themed art exhibit at an outdoor museum
  • Create an altar outside or in a front window so others can view it at a safe distance or create a virtual altar
  • If visiting a cemetery, wear masks and practice physical distancing

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In an acknowledgement that the fall brings with it many celebrations, Dr. Ghaly reiterated newly-issued guidance for small gatherings:

  • Gatherings should include no more than three separate households
  • Gatherings should be outdoors
  • Gatherings should be limited to two hours

“As we enter into the weeks before Halloween and then into the other fall holidays and winter holidays, thank you all for continuing to work with us,” Ghaly said. “I know it's difficult.”

Also announced Tuesday, the following counties were given permission to move into the state's less restrictive color-coded tiers that govern which businesses and activities can resume:

  • Moving into the red tier for “substantial risk”: Colusa, Kern, Kings, San Benito, Sutter and Stanislaus counties
  • Moving into the orange tier for “moderate risk”: Alameda, Placer and Santa Clara counties
  • Moving into the yellow tier for “minimal risk”: Sierra County

— Monica Lam (@monicazlam)

California Weighs Reopening Theme Parks as COVID-19 Hospitalization Rates Decline

With fall holidays around the corner, Gov. Gavin Newsom addressed questions about when theme parks — Disneyland in particular — will reopen by saying his administration is sending teams on “insight visits” for “deeper collaboration” with representatives from other parks, such as Florida’s Disney World, which reopened in July.

During a press briefing Monday, Newsom also said that guidelines for how to celebrate Halloween safely would be released on Tuesday.

Over the past two weeks, California saw an 8% drop in the number of hospital admissions due to COVID-19, while intensive care unit (ICU) admissions dropped even further, by 13%.

Statewide, the rate of positive test results is declining slightly, averaging 2.6% over the past 14 days. In another sign of progress, 42 counties are no longer in the state's most restrictive “purple tier” governing how many business can reopen.

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California has now trained over 10,890 contact tracers — among them, more than 1,800 who are bilingual in a range of languages from Spanish to Hmong, state officials said Monday.

According to state health and human services secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, more than 125,000 tests are being performed daily on average, with 90% getting results within 48 hours. In the case of a positive result, 97% of local health departments have been able to get in touch with a person’s contacts on the same day, he added.

— Monica Lam (@monicazlam)

California Adds 'Health Equity' to COVID-19 Metrics for Reopening

California health officials have added a new metric for assessing whether counties are doing enough to contain the spread of COVID-19. A new "health equity metric,” effective Tuesday, will examine rates of infection in communities that have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

“Low-income, Latino, Black and Pacific Islanders have been hardest hit” by the pandemic, said state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan in a presentation Tuesday.

The new metric assesses the rate of COVID-19 infections in census tracts that have been identified as having less healthy conditions, as measured by the Healthy Places Index. The index generates a score based on factors such as access to health care, housing density, crowding and air pollution.

Counties are currently placed in color-coded tiers based on the number of COVID-19 cases and the rate of testing per population. The new equity metric adds an additional requirement for counties wishing to move into less restrictive tiers, where more businesses can reopen and activities can resume.

Counties that have marked disparities in COVID-19 rates among different census tracts must submit a plan for improvement, including through increased testing, contact tracing, education and outreach.

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The following counties were given permission to move into less restrictive tiers Tuesday:

  • Merced, Ventura and Yuba counties are moving into the red tier for “substantial risk”
  • Inyo County is moving into the orange tier for “moderate risk”
  • Humboldt, Plumas, Siskiyou and Trinity counties are moving into the yellow tier for “minimal risk”

Two counties are moving back into more restrictive tiers:

  • Shasta County is moving back to the red tier
  • Tehama County is moving back to the purple tier

— Monica Lam (@monicazlam)