The San Antonio Fire Department on Thursday deployed a team of first responders to the downtown Residential Center for Veterans, a shelter for homeless veterans, to take temperatures and check residents for symptoms of COVID-19 following an outbreak at an administrative building where resident case managers are stationed.

Seven employees of the American GI Forum National Veterans Outreach Program who work at the organization’s 206 San Pedro Ave. location tested positive for COVID-19. The program provides housing and case management services to homeless veterans, including job search assistance and training.

The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District told the Rivard Report they visited the administrative and residential sites last week once informed that staff tested positive for COVID-19 because staff works in close proximity with the 130 residents.  

So far, two shelter residents showed symptoms and were tested for COVID-19, but the results are not known at this time. “Test results are not instantly available and must go through a verification process, and some results are still pending,” Metro Health said.

Serge Dickerson, who heads client services for the outreach program, said that the nonprofit closed its San Pedro case management location on Tuesday after a fifth person tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and the facility will remain closed through May so employees can complete the 14-day quarantine period. The two other cases were confirmed after the closure.

Anyone testing positive will not be allowed to return to work until they are cleared by Metro Health.

“I think we responded very quickly to it and made the best assessment we could given the available information, Dickerson said. “After learning about the [first person] testing positive, we went in and deep-cleaned everything, but by the time we learned he was infected, eight days had passed.”

COVID-19 is an “obvious concern” for the organization, Dickerson said. But because it’s an essential business providing services that help meet veterans’ basic needs, including food and shelter, the facilities remained open, and proper precautions were taken. He said the nonprofit provided masks, temperature thermometers, cleaning products, and hand sanitizer to each location to ensure they were able to maintain standards recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while continuing to see clients.

But American GI Forum staff working directly with veteran clients said that they were not provided the appropriate protections necessary for them to do their jobs safely.

One employee who tested positive for COVID-19 and asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job said the office struggled to get the supplies they needed to maintain a clean facility. The employee tried to screen people before they entered the building in case they had been in contact with someone who tested positive but was told the employee could not turn anyone away who was seeking services, no matter whom they were in contact with.

Another employee who tested positive this week and asked to remain anonymous said that while the San Pedro office, which houses 30 case managers, had “a good amount” of cleaning supplies a month ago, they were used quickly and never replenished, and that “getting the appropriate supplies to each office didn’t seem to be taken very seriously.”

For example, employees were told one precaution that could be taken would be taking client temperatures before they enter the building, for which Dickerson said they were provided a thermometer.

But staff voiced concerns over the lack of protective equipment provided, according to a recording the Rivard Report obtained of an American GI Forum staff meeting on April 17. During the meeting, management, including Dickerson, announced that an employee had tested positive. That announcement was met with complaints the office lacked an on-site thermometer to test client temperatures before they entered the building.

In response, Senior Vice President Yolanda Suarez, said on the recording, “There was a thermometer; it just wasn’t passed around.”

Dickerson said that American GI Forum, like many organizations throughout San Antonio and the nation, struggled to keep cleaning supplies, masks, and sanitizers available due to the “incredible increase in demand, [but that it] wasn’t for lack of trying.”

“Although we are an essential business we are not a hospital, so it has been difficult to get what we needed,” Dickerson said. “But we did try, and it wouldn’t benefit us to put our folks in danger and get them exposed. Not only would it hurt the employees it would hurt the business.”

Three thermometers were provided to the San Pedro location on Monday, but by Tuesday the office was closed due to the increase in positive cases.

Dickerson also noted that while the number of coronavirus cases at the San Pedro American GI Forum office is troubling, there is no guarantee that those employees picked up the virus at work, where they were enforcing social distancing measures and changing protocols to keep employees as safe as possible.  

“You can’t rule out folks going home and catching it at home or catching it at H-E-B or anywhere else. We can’t pinpoint where these people caught the virus, just that they have it now so we need to act on it now,” Dickerson said.

Metro Health has not responded to emailed questions regarding whether contact tracing has been done and whether those tested at the homeless shelter are part of that effort.

The lack of protective equipment and cleaning supplies available is at the forefront of conversation for many businesses seeking to reopen and get back to business as usual following more than a month out of business as counties and municipalities take measures to reduce the number of positive cases.

American GI Forum employees said because they work with vulnerable populations and people at high risk due to health complications, it is even more essential for people to put employee and client safety at the forefront of the business’s practices.

Similar organizations, including nonprofit Endeavors, which connects veterans and other vulnerable populations to necessary services including housing and mental health services, is currently in its sixth week of working remotely, said Chief Marketing Officer Shannon Gowen.

Gowen said that 98 percent of the organization’s services have been moved online to protect both employees and clients, and there has still been “a huge uptick in the last month or so of services needed” from 50 to nearly 500 service requests per month.

Dickerson said that while some organizations can go online to serve their populations, American GI Forum cannot because they work with people who are homeless and often have no access to any technology. Therefore, they would not be able to access these basic services.

“Truly if we want to help the community we have to stay open,” Dickerson said. “It is absolutely not practical for us to shut down.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.