Santa Rita Jail’s COVID-19 Outbreak Triggered by Surge in Staff Cases Says Wellpath Representative

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By Tiffany Devlin

Davis Vanguard’s bi-weekly highlights from SRJ’s COVID-19 crisis

Overview

Santa Rita Jail plunged into a massive outbreak during December, reporting over 100 positive cases in custody on Dec. 30. It subsided during the early days of January, however, another surge in cases emerged on Jan. 20. Cases continue to rise and multiple housing units are quarantined.

Given the volatility in testing rates, it is unclear if the recent surge in cases is due to an increased spread of the virus, or if it is simply a continuation of the outbreak in December, which had appeared to subside due to insufficient testing

Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) reported 64 cases within the incarcerated population and 8 staff/contractor cases in the two-week period between Jan. 7 and Jan. 20.

As of Jan. 20, there are seven symptomatic and 48 asymptomatic cases in custody.

Multiple housing pods were quarantined in the span of two weeks. While some were released early due to negative test results of the index cases, 22 housing pods are still under quarantine.

Jail News

Prior to Santa Rita Jail’s outbreak in December, there was a massive surge in staff/contractor cases. Between July and November, only 2 new staff cases were recorded. In contrast, over 45 new staff cases have been reported since mid-November. 

Unsurprisingly, the outbreak in the population was linked to the rise in staff cases. In a statement to the Vanguard, Mike Durbin, a Wellpath representative, said:

“Based on the efforts by the Public Health Department after their contact tracing, there was an assumption that it could have been related to the staff positives.” 

Given the impact of staff cases on the health of the jail population, the issue of staff testing, in particular, whether it should be mandatory or not, becomes contentious. 

On Dec. 15, Alameda County Health Care Services Agency and Alameda County Public Health Department announced a plan to expand and encourage voluntary COVID-19 testing for staff/contractors through an on-site testing program. 

While the program is now in effect, community activists and organizers argue that it is not sufficient. Some suggest that Wellpath should follow CDCR’s footsteps and introduce mandatory testing for staff contingent on their employment.

A recent memorandum required that all CDCR facilities mandate staff testing.

It states, “Any employee who refuses to comply with mandatory COVID-19 testing shall not be permitted to enter the institution or facility and shall be placed on an unapproved dock (without pay) until they comply with mandatory testing.”

While there are clear consequences for non-compliance in regards to staff testing in CDCR, the Alameda County Health Officer has refused to establish similar protocols for SRJ.

“That is not a recommendation that our County Health Officer has chosen to make at this time. We’re really trying to encourage all of the staff to get tested,” said Kimi Watkins-Tartt, Director of Public Health.

She explained that the current recommendation is for staff to be tested once per month, and for 25 percent of staff to be tested weekly.

Durbin also detailed new protocols to expand testing for pod workers, which began on Jan. 18. Pod workers are incarcerated people who work in the kitchen or laundry facilities and perform other pod duties. For every 10 incarcerated people, there is one pod worker. 

Pod workers will be offered testing on a bi-weekly basis on Mondays through Thursdays. On Fridays, testing will be offered to special housing units that have the kitchen workers and laundry workers.

Testing Report

Since Jan. 7, approximately 602 tests have been conducted, of which 139 are pending results. Approximately 29 percent of the jail was tested within the past two weeks. 19 percent of the jail was tested in the past week alone — the highest weekly testing rate recorded.

Given this increase in testing, it is unclear if the surge in cases on Jan. 20 is due to a new outbreak or if the true extent of December’s outbreak is simply becoming clearer due to expanded testing.

Darby Aono, a Berkeley Law student tracking COVID-19 in SRJ, expressed concern that the virus has been lingering in HU 25A, B and C since it was quarantined thrice in three months. She argues that Wellpath’s testing protocols are not capturing the true extent of the spread. These units were quarantined on Jan. 8, released after two days, and then re-quarantined.

“Anyone that presents symptoms of COVID-19 is offered a test. If they consent, we collect the test, we process it for COVID-19. If they test negative, the quarantine for that housing unit is lifted. If they test positive, then further testing is recommended by Public Health.” said Durbin in response.

Currently, Public Health’s recommendation is for the entire unit to be tested only if the index case tests positive, though it is not mandatory.

Similar to mandating testing for staff, some community activists have suggested making testing mandatory during the booking or intake process for incarcerated people. 

Undersheriff Richard Lucia expressed concern about this recommendation. 

“Here’s the problem with saying that we’re gonna mandatorily test inmates,” Lucia said. “The question is, how do we do that? Do we force them to the ground and forcibly put swabs up their nose?”

According to a model developed by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 59 percent of all transmissions come from those who are asymptomatic.

This is another reason for recommending mandatory testing, since Wellpath conducts symptom-based testing only. Durbin, however, says that there is a very low threshold for testing. Meaning, if someone complains of a mild cough or fever, they would be tested.

On the other hand, there are legal and/or ethical issues that can arise from mandatory testing. 

Dr. Jennifer Chaffin, a Consulting Psychiatrist for the Alameda County Behavioral Health Services said that by enforcing testing on those being booked, County Jail’s could face a huge civil lawsuit.

Furthermore, many incarcerated people reject testing to avoid solitary-confinement style quarantines if they test positive. Whether it is right or wrong, being able to reject testing is one way they can exercise control over their own mental and physical health. 

Population Report

As of Jan. 20, the jail population count is 2136 people. This is the highest recorded population in the last two weeks.

In the past, the jail has admitted that population reduction is not a priority in their COVID-19 mitigation strategy, despite five major outbreaks since March, including the most recent surge in cases. 

Lawyers from Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld wrote to Judge Nathanael Cousins expressing concern about SRJ’s COVID-19 response, particularly the rising population and impact of staff cases on the general population.

Attorneys Kara Janssen and Jeffrey Bornstein stated that they “remain concerned that introduction of the virus by staff is inevitable as the number of cases in the community rises.”

Furthermore, they urged the Sheriff to “reduce the jail population, in order to make social distancing, modified programming, isolation, and quarantine easier.”

Janssen also spoke about Alameda County’s zero-bail policy, which helped reduce the population at the beginning of the pandemic. Since zero bail only works once for offenders, a growing number of people who are re-offending while out on zero bail, are not eligible for the zero-bail again, contributing to the population spikes.

To combat this, Sheriff Ahern wrote in a letter to the Chiefs of Police and the Sheriff’s Association that “[i]n situations where circumstances permit individuals to be cited and released in the field, we ask that your staff consider this option.” 

Further, in Sabot Consulting’s third spot-check of the jail, Mike Brady recommended that SRJ reduce its population to mitigate the virus spread.

Despite these recommendations, the current population is not far from the pre-pandemic count.

Of the total population, 183 “orange” patients are at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. They are currently healthy but are medically vulnerable according to the color coding system outlined in the Outbreak Control Plan

There are 13 patients in custody showing COVID-19 symptoms and 55 patients with positive test results, who belong to the “red” and “dark red” categories respectively.

They are released individually from their respective housing locations (Outpatient Housing Unit (OPHU), HU8A, HU8C, or HU34) when cleared by medical. 

As of Jan. 20, HU 3A & B and HU 25A, B, and C have been added to the list of dark red patient housing units due to “expanded testing COVID results.”

Staff Report

In total, 101 staff/contractor cases have been recorded since the pandemic emerged, 94 of which have recovered.

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.

Housing Report

Between Jan. 7 and Jan. 20, 38 housing units were quarantined. ACSO states that all releases are done after the index case tests negative. The projected release dates are usually 14 days after the unit begins quarantine.

As of Jan. 20, 22 housing pods are under quarantine, of which ten are undergoing serial testing.

On Jan. 14, HU 25 A, B, and C were quarantined. They are a housing unit for patients with positive test results arising from “expanded testing.”

On Jan. 19, HU25 D & E were quarantined due to “possible contact” with a positive COVID-19 case. There is no reported release date.

These HUs are currently undergoing serial testing after the index cases tested positive  (no quarantine end date is available): 

  • HU 35A, B, and C were previously in 34A, B, and C starting from Dec. 17. On Jan. 11, the index case tested positive, after which serial testing began. 
  • HU 3B was quarantined on Jan. 9. Serial testing began on Jan. 19.
  • HU 3A, C, and D were quarantined on Jan. 14. Serial testing began on Jan. 19
  • HU 9A & E were quarantined on Jan. 14. Serial testing began on Jan. 20.
  • HU 8 E was quarantined again on Jan. 20 within the span of 11 days. Serial testing is underway.

Click here for more information on quarantines.

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