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When Father Jon Hedges was wheeled away in an ambulance two nights ago to the Cottage Hospital Emergency Room after reporting symptoms strongly resembling COVID-19, that was serious cause for alarm. Hedges functions as a one-man social-justice tidal wave and a one-person ecumenical council.
Hedges serves homeless people and advocates relentlessly on their behalf. He tends to souls in Isla Vista, where he operates out of St. Athanasius parish. Hedges maintains offices at Isla Vista’s Pescadero Lofts, a 36-unit home for those formerly homeless and making their way off the streets. He also serves as a chaplain at the Santa Barbara County Jail.
Outspoken, gruff, engaging, and inviting, Hedges qualifies as one of Santa Barbara County’s highest profile clergy members. In fact, last Thursday, he was one of the featured speakers at the daily COVID-19 press briefings hosted by the county Public Health Department. If Hedges were to be infected, many people would have reason to wonder if they were next.
It was Hedges’s daughter, Sarah Keller Brasel, who first alerted the community through a Facebook post that her father had been taken to the ER on Wednesday night for what looked like COVID-19. It would be Brasel who would notify the community one day later that Hedges had, in fact, tested negative for COVID but had contracted pneumonia and would remain hospitalized pending further treatment. “It’s funny to say we’re happy it’s pneumonia, but in the current context, we are,” Brasel said.
Late Wednesday night, Hedges returned from a walk to the beach in Isla Vista and sat down to do some work on his computer when he experienced a sudden increase in temperature, surging first to 100 degrees and then to 103. There was no shortage of breath or any other symptoms. But because of his age — Hedges is in his seventies — and prior health history, his physician, whom Hedges had called, instructed Hedges to call an ambulance. He was initially taken to the COVID unit but has since been released to the Telemetry ward, where he’s being treated for bacterial pneumonia and kept under observation.
“We don’t want to get too excited, because we are, of course, mindful of false negatives,” said Brasel, “but we are very much encouraged.” After having recently spoken to her father, she said he was “in good spirits and cracking jokes,” and receiving excellent care.
Had Hedges tested positive, county disease control investigators would have had their hands full, tracking down anyone with whom he’d come into prolonged contact. That’s defined as an interaction of 10 minutes or longer that takes place from six feet away or less without masks being worn. Given how active Hedges is — and his contact with people in the jail or on the streets — that could have involved a lot of people.
In the case of Pescadero Lofts, that could have proved especially problematic. Residents there are transitioning from living on the streets and do not have other places in which they can quarantine themselves and would need to be relocated into motel rooms, if deemed presumptive positive. According to county protocol, everyone living in the lofts would not be presumed to be positive, just those who came into significant contact.
For the time being, Hedges’s experience has been — mercifully — a false alarm. “He’s getting the best care possible right now,” said his daughter. “We’re asking for continued prayers from family and friends. We’re just so grateful it’s only pneumonia.”