By Linh Nguyen & Aparna Komarla
Approximately a week after the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office reported its third COVID-19 outbreak at Santa Rita Jail, 16 of the 18 active cases were reportedly resolved in a day. ACSO has confirmed that SRJ’s outbreak protocol does not involve testing individuals prior to declaring them COVID-19 negative and releasing them from quarantine.
129 tests were completed this week with 41 tests pending results. In total, 4171 tests have been completed since the pandemic began. Last week, 263 tests were administered, implying that the testing rate decreased by 50 percent this week.
Testing revealed two new cases on Sep. 28, raising the number of confirmed cases from 16 to 18.
ACSO confirmed that individuals are not tested prior to release from quarantine. Only confirmatory testing is being done to mark a positive COVID-19 case.
Incarcerated people in “yellow” housing units (units with known contact to COVID-19) are tested for COVID-19. Those who test positive are separated and placed into a separate unit. Those who initially test negative will be tested again after seven days and again after another seven days. They will be released after testing negative in those two consecutive tests.
For those who initially tested positive, they are placed in a separate housing unit and are released when their symptoms resolve. According to Madeline, a Wellpath representative, those who test positive see a doctor daily who makes release decisions.
In short, individuals are tested for release if they initially test negative but are not tested for release if they initially test positive.
The Vanguard questioned Commander Yesenia Sanchez and Wellpath staff on why testing was not being universally administered prior to release. ACSO claims that their protocol is based on CDC and Alameda County Public Health Department’s recommendations, which state that quarantine release strategy should not be based on testing, but rather on symptoms. According to the protocol, active cases are marked as resolved when symptoms resolve and at least after 10 days in quarantine.
The Vanguard has requested ACSO to provide proof of these recommendations from CDC and AC-PHD.
While ASCO claims that access to medical care and medicine is extensive and easy, testimonials from incarcerated people suggest otherwise, stating that access to medical care and medicines is limited and restrictive.
New bookings are offered testing, though the consent refusal rate is very high. According to Wellpath, since May, out of 2,306 tests offered for new books, 1,260 people have refused testing. In the quarantine housing units, out of 920 tests offered, 678 people refused. This refusal potentially stems from wanting to avoid social isolation and solitary-confinement style quarantines if tested positive.
There may be more active cases in the jail than what ACSO reports. These cases may be undetected because cases are asymptomatic or confirmatory testing cannot be done due to consent refusal.
Testing would need to be more widespread to confirm the true active cases in the jail so that they can be separated from those more susceptible to the virus. Furthermore, to encourage testing, quarantine protocols must also change so that individuals do not fear isolation in quarantine, as incarcerated narratives have suggested.
While the jail population has decreased this week since a record high population count of 1991 (recorded Sep. 14, 2020), it has gradually increased over the past five months to an average of 1950. In April, when ASCO released non-violent incarcerated people to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the population was around 1700.
The current population spikes are despite the continued threat of the virus, evident in recent outbreaks.
The Vanguard questioned ACSO on actions they are taking to limit population growth by releasing individuals early and reducing intake.
Commander Sanchez stated that the jail has no authority to release individuals early. However, the District Attorney’s Office does periodic reviews to evaluate who can be released. She added that they prioritize the jail’s medically vulnerable population (pregnant/older than 65/having chronic medical conditions) for early releases.
Sanchez was not aware of the specific tools or methods utilized by the DA’s office to make said evaluations.
She added that SRJ has requested county agencies and law enforcement agencies, who bring detainees into the jail, to cite an arrestee in the field instead of bringing them into custody if possible. Sanchez added that the county agencies have been receptive thus far.
When pressed on community concerns regarding the rising population, Sanchez admitted to not prioritizing population control, explicitly stating, “No, we don’t have an ultimate goal to limit population.” She argued that SRJ holds very serious crime offenders, and turning away folks who were arrested and brought into their custody would violate their obligations to ensure public safety.
She added that there are three housing units not in use, which can be accommodate a rising population while allowing social distancing.
Sanchez also stated that the population has increased since they are holding 99 individuals awaiting transfer to CDCR. Originally, this number was 107 — 8 of them were released based on their time-served credits. SRJ reportedly continues to work with CDCR to apply these credits to eligible individuals.
This week, HU 3D, 3C, 3E and 9E were under quarantine. HU 9E began quarantine on Sep. 27 and was released on Sep. 30, presumably due to a negative test result of the index case.
It appears that HU 3D, 3C and 3E (HU 3E, along with HU 3F and 8B, has been designated as a permanent housing unit for incarcerated people with a known exposure to COVID-19. These units are released on an individual basis.) are indefinitely quarantined, as ASCO reports that “quarantine release date will be determined by serial testing results.”
On Oct. 3, HU 24D began quarantine and is scheduled for release on Oct. 17, unless the COVID-19 test result is negative for the index case.
There is currently one confirmed COVID-19 case among jail staff. Staff members who test positive may not return to work until they are cleared per CDC guidelines.
Testing among the staff is voluntary and staff members also have the opportunity to self-quarantine if they are showing symptoms of illness or suspect they have come in contact with the virus.