CHRISTOPHER WEBER and DAISY NGUYEN
California reported the first prison inmate death from COVID-19 on Sunday as the state steps up efforts to prevent outbreaks among vulnerable populations, including people living in nursing homes, on the streets or in homeless shelters.
The inmate died at a hospital after contracting the coronavirus at the California Institution for Men in San Bernardino County, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement.
No further details were released to protect the inmate’s medical privacy, and next of kin was notified. Statewide, 115 inmates and 89 corrections employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, corrections officials said.
In recent days, California released for the first time details about nursing homes facing outbreaks as the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths across the state continue to rise.
The information released by the Department of Public Health showed nearly 260 skilled nursing facilities with more than 3,000 total positive cases among patients and staff.
Redwood Springs Healthcare Center in Visalia, a town in the agricultural Central Valley, was among the hardest-hit facilities with 91 residents and 46 staff members who tested positive.
Skilled nursing facilities are a particular concern because of the age and health conditions of residents, as well as their close living arrangements. Outbreaks have been reported in facilities in much of the state, and dozens of residents have died.
Facilities have limited visitors since March. Workers said they now undergo temperature checks and fill out questionnaires before their shifts to try to limit the spread of the disease.
Meanwhile, prisons were following isolation and quarantine guidelines laid out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and tried to increase physical distancing by bringing in tents, cots and temporary bathrooms. Already, 3,500 inmates were granted early release to reduce overcrowding.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe life-threatening illness, including pneumonia, and death.
As of Sunday, the state had recorded more than 31,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,175 deaths, according to John Hopkins University. Los Angeles County has 600 — more than half the statewide deaths.
There are concerns the virus could sweep through the state’s 150,000 homeless people, many of whom have chronic health conditions and lack safe places to quarantine themselves. San Francisco reported a large-scale outbreak at a homeless shelter after more than 100 people tested positive, including 10 staff members.
The state is on its way to acquiring nearly 16,000 hotel rooms to house the homeless during the pandemic, and already more than 4,200 people have been moved out of shelters or off the streets into hotel rooms, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Saturday.
“We’ve certainly flattened the curve. The question is when are we going to see those numbers start to decline on a consistent basis as opposed to an episodic basis,” he said.
Newsom, who made solving the state’s homelessness crisis a priority even before the pandemic struck, announced Project Roomkey two weeks ago, a program in which the federal government will pay 75% of costs associated with housing some of the homeless. It covers people who test positive or may have been exposed to the virus, older homeless people and those with underlying health conditions.
The program has acquired nearly 11,000 rooms, and Motel 6 has promised to set aside 5,000 rooms in 19 counties, Newsom said.
In Los Angeles, where more than 30 homeless people have tested positive for coronavirus, medical teams will begin screening people for the virus on the streets, along with fast-result field tests, Mayor Eric Garcetti said. Those who are infected will be offered transportation to shelters and have hotel rooms set aside for them.
Not all cities are embracing Project Roomkey. Los Angeles County prosecutors filed court papers Friday saying Lawndale and Bell Gardens threatened to terminate city permits for hotels and motels participating in the program.
There have been signs the outbreak is slowing in the month or more since most of the state’s 40 million residents were ordered to stay at home. Social distancing rules are being praised for that development, but they have hit the economy hard, shutting down schools, tourist spots and most restaurants and retail businesses.
Garcetti announced on Sunday that thousands of city workers will have to take furloughs as he warned of an economic downturn that will be far worse than the 2008 recession.
Some have chafed under the restrictions, including dozens of people who rallied in San Diego and Orange counties over the weekend against California’s stay-at-home order.
Ventura County on Saturday modified its stay-at-home order to permit some businesses that don’t serve the public to operate using no more than 10 employees. Gatherings of up to five people are now permitted, as are gatherings in vehicles, the county said.
Meanwhile San Francisco Mayor London Breed urged people to stay away Monday from the city’s Golden Gate Park, where thousands of marijuana enthusiasts traditionally gather every April 20 to celebrate the unofficial high holiday.
To start lifting restrictions and allow businesses to reopen statewide, Newsom has said California needs to test 25,000 people a day and better track those who are infected. The state is testing about 20,000 people a day now.
Several areas have begun offering tests to people without symptoms. Until now, there has been a shortage of test swabs and the chemical agents needed to process the tests.
Nguyen reported from Oakland.