San Jose Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness
San Jose Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness addresses an outbreak of Shigella in the homeless encampments along the waterways. Photo by Joyce Chu.

A bacterial outbreak has emerged among homeless individuals living at San Jose encampments in Columbus and Roosevelt parks, but health officials say the risk to the general public is low.

Three confirmed cases of Shigella, a highly contagious intestinal bacteria, were identified between June 3-17. Two individuals have been hospitalized and four people are being evaluated. There are 19 suspected cases tied to the same outbreak. Shigella causes vomiting and diarrhea, which is often bloody. It gets passed on when individuals put anything in their mouth that has made contact with the infected feces, such as shaking a contaminated hand and then using their hands to eat. People can also catch the disease by drinking water that has been contaminated.

“What’s concerning about this outbreak isn’t the absolute number. We do regularly see Shigella cases,” Dr. Monika Roy, assistant health officer in the county’s Public Health Department, said on Tuesday. “What’s concerning more is the number that are related to each other.”

Mild cases of Shigella usually clear up within a week. If needed, antibiotics can be prescribed.

Santa Clara County first became aware of the Shigella cases after testing was done on those who were hospitalized.

Both Columbus and Roosevelt parks sit along the waterways — with the former on Guadalupe River and the latter on Coyote Creek.

Roy told San José Spotlight the county is testing people along the waterways for the disease. Of those with confirmed and suspected cases, the majority were not living along the river. However, they have not tested the rivers and creeks to see if there has been contamination.

“At this time, our strategy is really focused on preventing the spread,” Roy said. “Testing will not provide conclusive or definitive results of either the cause or the mechanism to control.

There is a potential for Shigella to spread through the waterways and contaminate others who use the creeks, Roy said, which is why the focus is on providing clean drinking and sanitation water so that people do not need to use the creeks.

To prevent Shigella from spreading, San Jose is increasing the number of portable toilets and handwashing stations in both locations and cleaning the stations regularly. The city will also supply drinking and washing water. The county’s public health department has deployed teams to pass out test kits to suspected encampments and for continued testing.

“We will continue to follow any guidance or direction from public health or the authorities and experts on this, and provide any services and support that our unhoused residents need to ensure their safety and the safety of the community,” San Jose Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness said.

San Jose has 6,340 unhoused residents, 4,411 of whom live on the street, along rivers or in tents, according to the county’s 2023 biennial count of homeless people. This number doesn’t paint the full picture of homelessness in the city, as it only measures people experiencing homelessness on a single night. The survey is often considered an undercount.

To stop future outbreaks from happening among homeless individuals, Harkness said that the city is working to build out its sheltering capacity over the next few years.

“We have a goal of about 1,200 units in terms of shelter that we’re committed to doing over the next 12 months,” Harkness told San José Spotlight. “And we want to move people out of unsanitary conditions and unsafe conditions. We want to offer them a better alternative.”

Contact Joyce Chu at [email protected] or follow @joyce_speaks on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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