Massive COVID-19 Outbreak in Santa Rita Jail; New On-Site Program for Staff Testing – Highlights from SRJ’s COVID-19 Crisis

By Tiffany Devlin



Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) reported a massive outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Santa Rita Jail (SRJ) on Dec. 23 — right before the Christmas holiday. 

In total, ACSO reported 61 cases among the incarcerated population and 17 staff/contractor cases in the two-week period between Dec. 12 and Dec. 25. 

As of Dec. 25, there are 55 active cases in custody, of which five are symptomatic and 50 are asymptomatic.

There are 65 “red” patients in custody, who are either showing COVID-19 symptoms, awaiting test results or tested positive. They will be released individually from OPHU, HU 8A or HU 8C when cleared by medical. 

There are 185 “orange” patients in custody, who are at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Orange patients are currently healthy but are medically vulnerable according to SRJ’s patient color coding system outlined in their COVID-19 Outbreak Control Plan

Approximately 8.7 percent of the jail population is medically vulnerable at the moment.

18 housing pods were quarantined in the span of two weeks. While some have been released early due to negative test results for the index cases, there are currently nine housing pods still under quarantine.

Jail News

Kimi Watkins-Tartt, Director of Alameda County Public Health Department (AC-PHD), discussed the vaccine distribution plan for SRJ’s staff and incarcerated population.

She explained that the distribution will be based on a framework created by federal health agencies adopted by California. State agencies determine the dosage allocation per health jurisdiction. AC was expecting to receive the first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine by Dec. 18.

Phase 1A of the distribution plan will include high-risk health workers, first responders and those in long-term care facilities. Phase 1B will include people of all age groups with comorbidities and underlying conditions that put them at significantly higher risk and older adults living in congregate and overcrowded settings.

SRJ’s staff and population fall under Phase 2 of the distribution plan. Currently, the vaccine is voluntary for everyone.

Watkins-Tartt explained that the current allocation of 13,600 doses is not sufficient for everyone eligible in Phase 1. Health officials must prioritize those in the Phase 1 category before moving to the next eligible group.

More detailed information on vaccine distribution recommendations has been developed by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and CDC. 

Staff Report

In total, 89 staff/contractor cases have been recorded since the pandemic emerged, 76 of which have recovered.

Representatives from the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency (AC-HCSA) and the Alameda County Public Health Department (AC-PHD) announced that there will be expanded voluntary COVID-19 testing for staff/contractors in SRJ’s premises.

In the past 10 months of the pandemic, staff members were not offered on-site testing at SRJ.  

The decision comes amidst an on-going surge in staff cases. As of Dec. 25, there are 13 positive cases among staff. In the past two weeks alone, over 17 new cases were reported. 

Danice Cook, a representative from AC-HCSA, shared a new phased testing plan for staff. She added, “We have CORE as a vendor scheduled to start the testing… and we are also talking to other potential testing vendors.” 

She added that staff would have to pre-register prior to testing, and that AC-PHD and the Sheriff’s Office are communicating with staff on the importance of being tested. 

Phase 1 includes regular staff testing starting Dec. 18, which will prioritize kitchen staff and those working in intake transfer and release (ITR). They expect to offer testing on three occasions till the end of December. 

Phase 2 intends to expand staff testing starting in January. During this time, they foresee regular weekly on-site testing until either a major shift in the pandemic occurs or the vaccine is widely available.

While there is a goal of testing 25 percent of staff per week, it is not mandatory.

“The idea is that we are gonna start voluntary, we will see what the uptake is from how much staff get tested and then based on that,” Cook explained, “we will have to assess when and whether we would advise moving towards mandatory testing, and what specific factors would have us recommend going in that direction.”

“It’s easier and quicker starting in a voluntary way,” added Kimi Watkins-Tartt from AC-PHD.

Regarding testing methodology, Jen Diaz confirmed that only anterior nasal (nares) swabs are being used to test the incarcerated population. While staff testing will consist of RT-PCR tests, Watkins-Tartt did not know whether they would use nasopharyngeal or nasal swabs.

Staff members who test positive, have a temperature greater than 100 degrees, or are showing COVID-19 symptoms, may not enter the facility until they are symptom free at least 10 days from the onset of their symptoms, according to SRJ’s Outbreak Control Plan.

Staff have the opportunity to self-quarantine if they are showing symptoms of illness or suspect they have come in contact with the virus. However, if staffing becomes inadequate, staff who think they may have been exposed to a COVID-19 positive person may continue to work, pending a test, if asymptomatic.

While Cook assured that the Sheriff’s Office is working on strategies to encourage testing among staff, testing is purely voluntary and symptom-based, implying that asymptomatic staff members are still a serious threat to COVID-19’s spread.

Population Testing Report

As of Dec. 25, within the incarcerated population, 6,414 tests completed have been completed cumulatively. This number, however, does not reflect the number of individuals tested since one person can be tested multiple times to monitor their condition. 

Since Dec. 12, approximately 387 tests have been conducted, of which 14 tests are pending results.

A massive outbreak of over 50 cases was recorded before Christmas and staff cases are on the rise. Despite this, only 11 percent of the jail population has been tested in the past week. 20 percent of the jail population has been tested within the past two weeks.

Jen Diaz, a Wellpath representative, stated that since March, the refusal rate for intake testing has ranged from 40-50 percent. 

The refusal rate per month is as follows: 43 percent in September, 49 percent in October and 45 percent in November.

These percentages, however, only include data regarding the refusal rate for intake testing, therefore should not be considered the overall refusal rate for testing in the general population.

Population Report

As of Dec. 25, the jail population count is 2120 people. The highest count in the last two weeks was 2218 people, recorded on Dec.13.

The jail population continues to soar and is quickly reaching pre-pandemic levels that were observed in March. 

In the past, the jail has admitted that population reduction is not a priority in their COVID-19 outbreak plan, despite four major outbreaks since March, including the current outbreak. In Sabot Consulting’s third spot-check, Mike Brady recommended that SRJ reduce its population to mitigate the virus spread.

Housing Report

18 housing pods were quarantined between Dec. 12 – Dec. 25. ACSO asserts that all releases are done after the index case tests negative. In general, the projected release dates are 14 days after the unit begins quarantine.

As of Dec. 25, there are nine housing pods quarantined in the midst of the current outbreak.

Summary of HUs that were quarantined and released since Dec. 12 –

  • On Dec. 12, HU 33 A, B, C, D, E and F were quarantined and released after five days on Dec. 16. (HU A, B, and C were previously quarantined on Aug. 18. HU 33 D, E, and F were previously quarantined on Dec. 9.)
  • On Dec. 15, HU 2 D was quarantined and released after four days on Dec. 18.
  • On Dec. 19, HU 4 B was quarantined and released after five days on Dec. 23. (Previously quarantined on Nov. 6.)
  • On Dec. 21, HU 8 D was quarantined and released after three days on Dec. 23. (Previously quarantined on Dec. 8.)

Summary of HUs that are currently quarantined – 

On Dec. 17, HU 34 A, B, C, D, E, and F were quarantined due to a patient presenting symptoms on Dec. 16. (HU 34 D, E, and F were previously quarantined on July 25.)

  • Quarantine has been extended for HU 34 A, B, and C until Jan. 5 due to another patient presenting symptoms on Dec. 21.
  • Quarantine has been extended for HU 34 D, E, and F until Jan. 6 due to another patient presenting symptoms on Dec. 22. 

On Dec. 24, HU 4 F was quarantined due to a patient presenting symptoms on Dec. 23. It is scheduled to be released on Jan 8. (Previously quarantined on Dec. 10.)

On Dec. 24, HU 21 D was quarantined due to a patient presenting symptoms on Dec. 23. It is scheduled to be released on Jan 8. (Previously quarantined on Nov. 20.)

On Dec. 25, HU 9 B was quarantined due to a patient presenting symptoms the same day. It is scheduled to be released on Jan. 9. (Previously quarantined on Dec. 6.)


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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