Minimal Testing & Labelling Asymptomatic Cases as Recovered – How Santa Rita Jail Brought Down COVID-19 Cases Amidst an Outbreak

By Larkin White

Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of August 2, the recent outbreak in Santa Rita Jail appears to be subsiding, in sync with a decrease in new daily cases across Alameda County as a whole. The jail has continued to test so minimally throughout the recent outbreak that it undermines the credibility of the reported number of active cases. 

COVID-19 in Santa Rita Jail

Santa Rita Jail has administered only 179 tests in the last week — less than 10 percent of the incarcerated population — and has 5 new cases. This suggests that more people may have the virus than what has been reported. 

After over 100 people tested positive two weeks ago, the jail has continued to test far less than what would be necessary to produce reliable information on the extent of the outbreak. On Tuesday, they did not administer any tests at all.

Decarcerate Alameda County, a community organization consisting family members of people held in SRJ, has demanded that the jail offer testing to everyone incarcerated there once a month. This would require over 400 tests per week.

It should be noted that the outbreak does appear to be dying down. The week before, 194 tests were administered and 23 came back positive.

Nonetheless, over the last several weeks, the jail’s daily COVID-19 reports have become error-prone, further undermining the credibility of the Sheriff’s Office. In fact, testimony from people currently and formerly incarcerated in the jail claims that they manipulate testing to keep numbers low.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office tweeted on Monday that 128 of the 196 people in Santa Rita Jail who have tested positive have recovered. The count has now reached 144. 

However, Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sergeant Ray Kelly told the Davis Vanguard that asymptomatic people with COVID-19 are considered “recovered” once they have failed to show symptoms for only four days. The vast majority of these people still have the virus in their system and are, in fact, still required by the jail to stay in the quarantine zone for two weeks after testing positive.

The jail’s policy to quarantine positive or symptomatic people also suggests that there maybe more active cases than the reported count.

Housing units (HU) 2D, 24 ABC, and 35 ABC were quarantined on Tuesday, a day after the tweet boasting about recovery, despite HU 35’s recent release from an unexplained 19-day quarantine on Saturday, July 25. They were meant to quarantine until August 11, but appear to have been released on Thursday, just two days later, with no explanation. 

HU 22B’s quarantine was also extended by 2 days this week without explanation.

Santa Rita Jail and Alameda County

Santa Rita Jail is currently holding 1877 incarcerated people. Although the population is down 720 from March 1, it is up significantly from a low of 1726 on April 25. 

Additionally, because the jail regularly brings in and releases people, the total number of people that have been in custody over the last week is actually substantially higher than 1877.

The recent outbreak appears to be synchronous with a peak in daily cases across Alameda County as a whole. They even share a date where they both saw the highest number of cases– July 17. 

Jail Staff Report

There are currently 12 staff and contractors with active COVID-19 infections.

Staff case numbers have held this week as several staff contracted and recovered from COVID-19. There has been a cumulative total of 51 cases, three more than last week. There were two deaths last weekend, the only deaths so far.

Although staff are typically ordered to stay home if they have been exposed to the virus, the jail’s official policy states that if they are understaffed, asymptomatic staff are allowed to return to work. This poses a serious risk considering that well over half of the people who contract COVID-19 have only mild symptoms or are asymptomatic. 


Source: The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office updates their website daily with COVID-19 case and testing numbers from the jail. It should be noted that many daily reports during the last two weeks have had errors which were addressed only when asked about. Darby Aono, a Berkeley Law student, has been recording the daily reports in a spreadsheet going back to early spring.

About The Author

The Covid In-Custody Project partners with the Davis Vanguard to report on the pandemic's impact on California's county jails and state prisons. See for more information.

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