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As coronavirus cases rise, O.C. moves to convert two hotels into housing, medical facilities for the homeless

In this 2018 file photo, a homeless man and woman walk along an encampment at the Santa Ana river trail in Orange County. County officials have entered into an agreement with a hotel operator to house and treat unsheltered people amid the coronavirus.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Officials in Orange County entered into an agreement this week with a boutique hotel group to convert two properties into temporary housing and medical facilities for the homeless amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ayres Hotels, located in Orange and Laguna Woods, will be leased on a month-to-month basis to shelter and provide medical care for homeless individuals who are over age 65, have underlying health conditions, are showing symptoms of the coronavirus or who have tested positive, according to county officials.

Homeless people, who are more likely to have underlying health conditions and weakened immune systems, often from living on the streets, are at a higher risk for developing severe forms of COVID-19 than the general population, health experts say.

Officials across the state have been working on ways to quickly move people indoors amid fears that an outbreak in this vulnerable population could strain an already fragile health system.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom has allocated $50 million to purchase or lease hotels and motels across the state for that purpose, along with an additional $100 million in emergency grants. The state is also providing trailers to Orange County to use in isolating homeless people.

County Executive Officer Frank Kim said during a news conference Thursday that the locations are among several identified throughout the county that could eventually care for at-risk unsheltered individuals. He declined to identify the cities or other hotels being considered. It is not clear how much the county is paying to lease the hotels.

“Speed is of the greatest importance,” he said. “Our ability as a community to share in this incredibly difficult burden, as well as respond as quick as possible to isolate these highest-risk individuals and provide the necessary medical and provision of services within this motel environment, is something we were directed to do.”

Ayres Hotels said in a statement that they would not be accepting any new guests after Wednesday when the lease with the county began.

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“We are happy to help Orange County during this difficult time, and look forward to business returning to normal. Orange County will return the hotel professionally cleaned in the original condition when the lease expires,” the hotel group said in a statement. “Once, we have a clearer understanding of when this health crisis will be under control, we will advise guests when they can begin making reservations.”

News of the agreement comes as confirmed cases of coronavirus in Orange County continue to swell.

The county saw its biggest single-day increase in infections Wednesday, as officials announced 107 new cases and three deaths. On Thursday, officials added 56 new cases to their list and three additional deaths.

Of the more than 7,790 people who have been tested countywide, 656 COVID-19 cases and 13 deaths have been confirmed. Of those who have died, seven were 65 or older and three were between 45 and 64. One was between 35 and 44 and two others were between 45 and 64.

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During a news conference on Thursday, county health officials suggested that residents who must leave their homes for essential activities wear face coverings while they’re in public. However, they cautioned against using N95 or surgical masks, which are already in short supply for healthcare workers.

“Wearing a cloth face covering when leaving the house for essential activities may help reduce the spread of COVID-19 by residents who are positive but don’t have any symptoms,” said county health officer Dr. Nichole Quick. “However, it’s important for community members to remember that face coverings are not a replacement for prevention measures like social distancing and frequent hand washing, which continue to be the best way to protect yourself.”

More than 100 people across the county are currently being hospitalized and 47 people are in intensive care units. However, county health officials say the surge in patients seeking medical care is likely still a week or two away.

With that in mind, officials have started identifying locations that could house patients to help relieve the burden on the county’s healthcare system.

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The Fairview Developmental Center — a state-owned property in Costa Mesa which has long housed adults with developmental and behavioral disabilities — will be used as an alternative care site as part of a wider effort to boost hospital capacity statewide.

The center will provide up to 1,100 new hospital beds that should be available later this month, according to Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).

“Around the world and in other states, we have seen the horrific images and heard the heartbreaking stories of COVID-19 patients dying in hospital corridors because there are not enough beds,” she said in a statement. “We are aggressively preparing for California’s surge to try to avoid that nightmare.”

Though Costa Mesa officials fiercely fought against a proposal in February to move coronavirus patients to Fairview, they said this week that much has changed since then and it is vital to work together to combat the disease.

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On Thursday, Laguna Woods officials pushed back on the county’s agreement with Ayres Hotels suggesting the possibility of future legal action to prevent ill individuals from being housed at the facility.

Mayor Noel Hatch pointed to the city’s large population of elderly residents who are also at risk of contracting the virus and becoming seriously ill. Officials say they received no warning from the county that an agreement was being negotiated.

“The city is deeply concerned with the County of Orange’s unilateral decision to place individuals afflicted with COVID-19 right in the middle of the most concentrated community of older adults in Orange County,” he said. “I have spoken with Supervisor [Lisa] Bartlett and requested that the Orange County Board of Supervisors revisit County staff’s decision to open this facility, recognizing that a greater danger will be created for an entire segment of the very population they’re trying to protect.”

County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents several cities in South Orange County including Laguna Woods, did not respond to a request for comment.

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Residents of Laguna Woods Village, a 55-and-older community that houses the majority of the city’s 18,000 residents, have also expressed concerns over potentially being forced to grocery shop and purchase medication in the same retail areas as people with the virus.

“Residents are unnerved,” said Eileen Paulin, director of media and communications for the village. “It’s like nobody stopped to look at where the hotel was located in relation to the community. They really couldn’t have chosen a worse spot.”

Staff writer Luke Money contributed to this report.


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