The San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living in the Excelsior neighborhood of San Francisco. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
The San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living in the Excelsior neighborhood of San Francisco. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Coronavirus outbreak grows at S.F. Jewish senior home

The San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living continues to experience a widespread outbreak of coronavirus just days before vaccines are to be administered to residents.

Prior to Dec. 7, only two long-term residents had tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic. That number has now jumped to 72 residents. Four have also died in the outbreak.

“I realize this has been a very hard time for all of us,” Peggy Cmiel, director of clinical operations, said at a virtual town hall with family members on Dec. 29. J. obtained audio of the meeting.

“We are all suffering along with you,” she said. “We are doing everything we can to control the outbreak we are having.”

Cmiel was joined at the town hall by President-CEO Daniel Ruth and the facility’s infection control specialist, all of whom spoke about how the SFCJL was responding to the increase in cases and answered questions from family members.

When asked how the virus might have entered the facility, Cmiel said, “It was Thanksgiving, truly.” She also said the source of the outbreak came from a single staff member “who was asymptomatic but had been in social gatherings upon our investigation.”

The increase in cases at the SFCJL also has presented obstacles when it comes to staffing, the SFCJL leaders said. Since March, 45 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“It’s been challenging,” Cmiel said. “We’ve had a number of our staff that either have tested positive or have been exposed to a family member or someone they live with. It’s definitely a challenge every day.”

The senior home employs over 600 people.

To mitigate the spread of the virus, SFCJL is implementing several measures, according to spokesperson Marcus Young.

Every staff member is tested weekly, positive patients are quarantined away from others, and the facility is “redoubling” its infection-control efforts and sanitation in common areas, Young said. The SFCJL, one of the largest senior facilities in the Bay Area, has also partnered with physicians from UCSF.

Family members who spoke with J. say they are thankful for the staff but continue to worry about their loved ones.

“I have a deep appreciation [for the] staff for all they do to make residents comfortable,” said Julia Zagatsky, whose mother has been at the SFCJL for 10 years with Alzheimer’s. “At this moment, with the Covid-19 breakout at the facility, I am very worried that if my mom [gets] infected with Covid, and will not be able to recover, I will never see her again and never say goodbye.”

Another individual, whose family member tested positive for coronavirus during the outbreak but has since recovered, credits the SFCJL for keeping the virus out of the facility for much of the pandemic.

“Generally they’ve done really well,” they said, but that success also may have given people “a false sense of security.” The individual, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons, said they feel especially helpless with in-person visits on hold at the moment. (The SFCJL is offering Zoom meetings for families.)

“There’s nothing you can do,” the individual said.

The coronavirus vaccine does offer a ray of hope.

On Jan. 4, with the help of CVS Pharmacy, the facility will administer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to all 325 residents over a three-day period. So far, 230 staff members have been vaccinated. Everyone who receives the vaccine still has to wear a mask and practice social distancing, since research has not determined whether the vaccine will prevent someone from carrying and spreading the virus.

In addition, there is a 21-day waiting period before the second dose of the vaccine is administered. In Southern California, a nurse tested positive for coronavirus after receiving the first dose, a situation medical experts say is expected to occur because it takes time for the vaccine reaches full efficacy.

Spokesperson Young said residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus will not be receiving the vaccine at this time.

The SFCJL outbreak reflects the increase in coronavirus cases across the city and state. On Dec. 31, San Francisco announced that it would extend its stay-at-home order, which was set to expire on Jan. 4, for an indefinite period in response to community spread, and as a new variant originating from the United Kingdom was detected in California and Colorado.

Other long-term senior care homes in the region, including S.F.’s Laguna Honda Hospital, one of the largest skilled-nursing facilities in the country, are dealing with new coronavirus cases. Like the SFCJL, Laguna Honda generally was able to keep coronavirus cases under control in the final months of the year. But in December alone, over 50 residents and staff have tested positive and three have died, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

At Rhoda Goldman Plaza, a Jewish assisted-living facility with a memory care unit in San Francisco, a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus, according to an email sent to community members on Dec. 30. In response, RGP will test residents and continue to test staff. All in-person activities, outdoor visits and dining room services have been discontinued until there are no cases among residents and staff for two consecutive weeks.

So far, 15 staff members and 25 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to data from the state’s Department of Social Services. There was an outbreak in September, in which eight residents died.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.