The Crowne Plaza hotel in Mission Valley, which the county is using as an isolation center for people with COVID-19 symptoms who have no other place to go, is shown on May 1, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

A person in COVID-19 isolation at the county-run Crowne Plaza hotel in Mission Valley died by suicide on April 23, more than a month after county employees raised alarms about the lack of mental health services for people placed there, according to interviews and emails obtained by inewsource.

Data and documents highlight the fears county staff have had about the safety of workers at the Crowne Plaza, chronicle their concerns about access to mental health care for hotel guests and reveal a spike in police activity at the facility, which San Diego County is using as temporary housing for people who need shelter while suffering from COVID-19 symptoms.

Why this matters

San Diego County is spending millions of taxpayer dollars to house people with COVID-19 symptoms in isolation centers, many of whom are homeless and have no other place to safely isolate themselves while ill.

One county employee with knowledge of the situation at the hotel told inewsource that other suicide attempts had taken place since officials took over the hotel.

Calls for service to San Diego police were five times higher from March 16 through April 23 compared to the same time last year. Police records show several calls were related to mental health issues.

Dawna Morse, a program coordinator with the county’s Health and Human Services Agency who has helped oversee staff at the Crowne Plaza, told colleagues in a March 26 email that while everything seemed disorganized, she was “pushing and begging and pleading for additional staff” to help with the workload “and to provide adequate support to the folks in the hotels.”

“We are pushing extremely hard to get case management and mental health services to the hotels,” Morse wrote. “The work you all do, daily, is not going unnoticed and we do realize there is a need for mental health supports for the folks we are providing lodging to.”

Reached Thursday evening, Morse declined to elaborate.

Emails show San Diego County workers have had concerns about access to mental health care for people with COVID-19 symptoms isolating at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Mission Valley, shown here on May 1, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

San Diego County has been spending $2.7 million a month since mid-March to house people in isolation, including homeless people, in an attempt to curtail the spread of the highly contagious disease. But county officials refuse to release the names and addresses of the facilities or disclose how many there are, citing privacy concerns.

County spokesman Michael Workman told inewsource in an email Thursday that mental health services are offered onsite every day at the “primary hotel” the county is using to isolate people with COVID-19 symptoms, but he didn’t say which hotel is considered the “primary” one.

Guests at all county-acquired isolation centers are given telephone numbers for behavioral health services and receive daily wellness checks, Workman said. In addition to hotels and motels, he said the isolation centers include dormitories at the University of California San Diego.

Suicide prevention help

If you are having thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or the San Diego Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240.

Other resources are available here.

The county began acquiring places for people to isolate on March 12, a week before Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order. The county has about 1,500 rooms for people who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and need somewhere to isolate but don’t require hospital attention. That includes homeless people and residents who may put family members with underlying conditions at risk of catching the virus if they stay home.

The person who died at the Crowne Plaza was homeless, a spokeswoman for the Medical Examiner’s Office said. Investigators would not release the individual’s name because they are working to officially identify the person and notify family members, the spokeswoman said.

She said the suicide was the first among the county’s homeless population this year. The office recorded at least nine homeless people who died by suicide in 2019.

The individual had just received a negative test result for COVID-19 and was on a list to be considered for transfer to the San Diego Convention Center or another suitable location at the time of their death, said a spokesman for Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, co-chairman of the county’s coronavirus task force. The convention center is housing hundreds of homeless people who don’t have COVID-19 but need shelter during the pandemic.

San Diego police Lt. Shawn Takeuchi said it’s not uncommon for police to be called to hotels and motels, but the Crowne Plaza has seen more police activity than usual.

From March 16 to April 23, police received 60 calls for service to the hotel. Nine of them related to a person with mental health issues. During the same time period last year, 11 police calls from the Crowne Plaza occurred and none related to mental health concerns.

Police received five calls from the Crowne Plaza for disturbing the peace since mid-March and two calls for overdoses the week of April 20.

Workman said the county is “well aware” of the high volume of police calls coming from the Crowne Plaza.

“The folks being isolated there are used to a much different environment,” he said in an email. “Living with restrictions can be a challenge for some of these folks.”

Workman added that staffing levels are sufficient to meet the needs of guests and workers, but he didn’t provide specific numbers.

The emails inewsource obtained tell the story of overworked county staffers who respond to the needs of people staying at the isolation centers and make arrangements for incoming and departing guests. They document lax safety procedures and limited access to protective equipment for workers at the Crowne Plaza, which can increase the possibility of spreading the coronavirus.

Guests are not required to stay in their rooms, even though they are under a public health order to self-isolate, the emails show. And though they’re told to wear face coverings, they sometimes walk through the halls without them. Workers are told to visit the guestrooms to ask questions or drop off belongings, heightening their fears of catching the virus.

People staying at the hotel are also allowed to have service animals with them, though they are strongly encouraged to not leave their rooms, Workman said.

Michael McConnell, a San Diego philanthropist and homeless advocate, said the county should bear some responsibility for someone taking their life while isolated under the government’s care. He also thinks officials should have enough staff available to address the guests’ mental health needs.

“They should know that they’re putting folks in there who can have challenges, and you have to be prepared to meet those challenges and be there to support folks,” McConnell said.

“They should certainly look at what they’re doing,” he added.

Correction: 8:30 p.m. May 1, 2020
An earlier version of this story reported that county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said at an April 24 news conference the individual who died was scheduled for transfer to the San Diego Convention Center. After publication, a spokesman for Fletcher said the supervisor misspoke and the individual was being considered for placement at the convention center.

Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource focusing on social impact and government accountability. Few things excite him more than building spreadsheets and knocking on the door of people who refuse to return his calls. When he’s not ruffling the feathers of some public official, Cody...

Jill Castellano is a former investigative data coordinator for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club....