In April Sonoma State University entered into a contract with the County of Sonoma to use parts of the university’s campus as an alternate care site (ACS) to house people who are COVID positive but do not need hospitalization, in order to free up space at local hospitals. It will also house those who have tests pending, as well as people who are experiencing homelessness and are unable to shelter in place. While the action is meant to support public health and reduce the spread of COVID-19, many community members were left wondering what these actions would mean to the community, both now and in the future. The Community Voice aimed to have some of their questions answered and dispel myths that are circulating around our local neighborhoods.
“This really transpired with the governor,” says Paul Gullixson, Associate Vice President for Strategic Communications at Sonoma State University. “Governor Newsom, in recognition of the potential for a surge of COVID-19 cases across the nation, did an evaluation and looked at the available hospital beds that we had throughout the state versus how many we were going to need to respond to the peak of COVID-19 patients and saw a huge gap there. We needed another 66,000 beds across the state of California to really meet our needs at our worst point. He put out a call to his staff and state agencies to find excess bed capacity to be able to handle our surge once we hit that high point. The county, which is an agent of the state government, looked at our needs as a county and said at our high point we were going to need 1,500 beds to meet our peak capacity and we only have space for about 650 to 800 beds in the existing hospital space.”
The City of Rohnert Park is not involved in the contract nor was it part of the decision-making process.
“This is a county operation,” says Don Schwartz, Public Information Officer for the City of Rohnert Park. “They created a contract with Sonoma State, the city is not part of that. It is actually not within the city limits. We were not consulted during the process and it’s really a county operation. We’re aware of the concerns and we appreciate the security measures that the county has put in place.”
Sonoma State University is not the only state college campus that is being used to help in this pandemic. Being state agencies and largely empty due to moving to remote instruction, campuses are facilities that can quickly accommodate larger populations of people.
“We aren’t the only CSU campus that is involved,” says Gullixson. “Alternate care sites have been set up at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, some facilities have been used at Cal State Hayward, Sac State, as well as others. These are state properties and so they’ve been used to help address the health care needs. Some universities have contracts with the state to create lab space for testing and some have set up alternate care sites.”
The ACS at Sonoma State is actually comprised of three separate divisions, which are housed separately and have corresponding security measures in place. The first section, located in SSU’s student center and recreational facilities, is meant to house COVID-19 positive patients with lower levels of need than those in the hospitals. Even though at the time of this writing there are no patients there currently, the county is following the maxim of “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” Should cases in the county surge and hospitals get overcrowded, as we have seen in other parts of the world, having this overflow facility prepared would ensure hospital beds are available for acute cases of the virus, as well as others who require
Many of these people may not be in a position to be able to self-isolate, such as living in a nursing home, for example. Medical staff will be on site 24/7 once this section opens.
“All residents are screened and monitored,” says Gullixson. “The ones who are COVID-19 positive are the ones that are contained to the recreation center. The people in that center are not allowed to leave the fenced area, they are under constant supervision. The whole ACS site is fenced with security 24/7. They are under healthcare orders to stay there.”
The second section, located in SSU’s Sauvignon dormitory, are for those who are symptomatic and have been tested for COVID-19 and are waiting on the results. This section is also a restricted area on campus, fenced off with on-site security and medical staff on hand. Some of these may be healthcare providers themselves, or first responders, who don’t want to compromise people at home.
Finally, SSU’s Verdot Village dormitory is primarily for individuals experiencing homelessness and are at higher risk of hospitalization if infected, including those 65 or older or with underlying health conditions. By housing these individuals, both their risk of infection is reduced, as well as the risk of spreading the virus. At the time of this writing there are 35 people in this category being housed at SSU and this section has a capacity of approximately 150.
“Some of our neighbors have been concerned about that,” says Gullixson. “That area is also fenced and has security 24/7. These are people that do not have the virus but they are required to shelter in place like everybody else. We have strict rules against smoking. They can go out but only on supervised visits. Some of them have jobs so they need to go to their jobs, but we have very strict controls and rules. It is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
Many in the community are concerned about what will happen to the homeless once there is no more need for the ACS and the contract ends.
“We have been assured by the county that they are developing a plan to make sure that all those residents who are there at the time that the ACS is discontinued will be relocated to other areas,” says Gullixson. “They will find housing for them, and they will not be dumped on the campus and start living on campus. That is not the case. They’re not going to dump them in the neighborhoods, they’re going to make sure they have places for them to go. All those facilities on the Sonoma State campus, they’re under contract to vacate, clean, sanitize and restore to a full, as-is condition.”
At this point the contract between the county and SSU is set to expire on June 7, with the ability to extend it in 30-day increments as needed. It has not been determined yet if that extension will be necessary.
The county was not available for comment but posted a number, 565-4746, that residents can call with questions or concerns.