Jorge Gomez looks through brother Jose Angel Gomez-Camacho's possessions, Feb. 13, 2020. His brother died by suicide while isolating at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Mission Valley after testing positive for COVID-19. The hotel is among those being used by San Diego County to quarantine residents who have nowhere else to go. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

More than three weeks have passed since San Diego State University released its scathing report about the county’s COVID-19 hotel program, and county officials refuse to talk about it.

The report said San Diego County gave an unqualified company a $30 million contract to operate the hotels, and that poorly trained employees forced COVID-19 patients to suffer through long delays for much-needed medication and allowed gaps in services that may have led to overdoses and suicide.

Why this matters

San Diego County is spending millions of dollars to house people affected by COVID-19 in hotels. Some have tested positive or have symptoms, while others have health issues that put them at risk. Many are homeless and have no other place to safely isolate.

The County Board of Supervisors ordered a review of the program in early March. It was eight days after an inewsource investigation uncovered poor care and oversight issues at the Crowne Plaza in Mission Valley — the main hotel used in the sheltering program. 

County officials agreed to pay SDSU $140,000 for the evaluation and final report, which included nine recommendations to improve the program. But county officials won’t say if any of those changes will be made.

County spokesperson Michael Workman sent a statement the day the report was released, which said officials would take the report into consideration, and added that it would be “our only comment or reaction to the report or your questions.” Workman stopped responding to inewsource emails about SDSU’s report. 

In addition, the entire Board of Supervisors has remained silent.

A spokesperson for Supervisor Joel Anderson, who represents cities and communities in East County, said “while it is an important subject, we have many more pressing issues.” A spokesperson for Supervisor Jim Desmond, who represents North County, shifted responsibility to county staff members, saying they should speak about it.

The other three Supervisors — Chairman Nathan Fletcher, Nora Vargas and Terra Lawson-Remer — did not respond to questions or interview requests.

The SDSU report praised county staff for their dedication, flexibility and sense of urgency, saying the program likely prevented the spread of COVID-19 across the county. But the review also confirms inewsource reporting over the past year and a half from guests as well as county and contract employees who have exposed neglect and wrongdoing in the sheltering program.

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)

Employees and hotel guests told SDSU that the county’s contractor, Equus Workforce Solutions, is mismanaging the program, and staff aren’t trained to work with many of those who are isolating — people who are homeless and might be struggling with mental illness or substance use disorders. As a result, drug use and suicide attempts became rampant.

Hundreds of people will continue relying on services at these hotels until the county’s contract with Equus expires at the end of the year. Even so, there are no plans to discuss the report or the future of the program in a public meeting.

Marlon Saville said he was sent to the Crowne Plaza from a homeless shelter after complaining about COVID-19 symptoms Aug. 18. He said he has a compromised immune system and his isolation is scheduled to end Saturday, and he’s afraid the lack of case management services will force him to go back to the same place he thinks he caught the virus.

As for the staff, he said, “They’re people, so some of them couldn’t really care and it’s all process. But then there are some who are just really amazing.”

San Diego County has been using the Crowne Plaza and other hotels since March 2020 for people who have nowhere else to isolate from the coronavirus. But the program has been plagued with problems from the start.

In an email inewsource obtained last spring, one employee told colleagues she was “pushing and begging and pleading for additional staff” to help provide adequate support. 

Within a week, county officials changed an existing $13 million contract it had with Telecare Corp., which had been providing mental health services to San Diegans in the legal system, to also help people in isolation. Even so, a man died by suicide at the Crowne Plaza not long after that email. The death wasn’t discovered for five days. 

Two months after inewsource uncovered these problems and the suicide death, county officials hired Equus to take over the hotel sheltering program. 

But the problems have continued under Equus’ management.

SDSU researchers revealed a disagreement among county officials about the type of program that was needed. Some said the goal was simply to isolate people and reduce community spread, which the program has accomplished. But others recognized that these hotels would become a shelter serving primarily vulnerable people with complex needs.

SDSU seems to agree that additional help is necessary, as four of the nine recommendations listed in the report deal with case management, medical or behavioral health services. The report goes on to say that all similar programs in the future should focus on medical and behavioral health services.

One of the recommendations included 14 changes that could be made right away to address concerns raised by staff and guests.

Jill Castellano contributed to this report.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

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...