By Tiffany Devlin
Davis Vanguard’s bi-weekly update from Santa Rita Jail’s COVID-19 crisis
COVID-19 cases have dropped significantly at Santa Rita Jail over the last two weeks. Multiple recoveries were reported on a daily basis, leaving 14 active cases in custody of Feb. 7.
Currently, there are 2 symptomatic and 12 asymptomatic patients within a population of 2198 people.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) reported 31 new cases within the incarcerated population and no new staff/contractor cases during the last two weeks.
Between Jan. 10 to Jan. 20, the overall testing rate increased significantly, with ACSO reporting 100 new tests in a single day on multiple occasions. The weekly testing rate neared 25 percent during this period– the highest count recorded during the pandemic. It has progressively reverted to under 15 percent.
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, 10 housing pods are still under quarantine.
SRJ has also updated its Outbreak Control Plan.
Alameda County is still in Phase 1A of the vaccine distribution, meaning only healthcare workers are eligible at the moment.
Mike Durbin, a Wellpath representative, stated that 120 doses of the vaccine were provided from AC-PHD for eligible medical staff at the jail.
Only 113 of 201 clinical staff consented to taking the vaccine– less than 60 percent.
Durbin added that there are no penalties in place for Wellpath staff who refuse vaccinations.
“Our goal is coverage for the whole facility.” said Kimi Watkins-Tartt, director of the Alameda County Public Health Department (AC-PHD). Currently, jail staff are prioritized over the incarcerated population, according to the most updated vaccine prioritization framework. She added they are trying to administer vaccinations for custody staff and incarcerated people in parallel rather than consecutively.
In total, 104 staff/contractor cases have been recorded since the pandemic emerged, 99 of which have recovered. There are currently five active staff/contractor cases.
Watkins-Tartt explained that the current recommendation is for staff to be tested once per month, and for 25 percent of staff to be tested weekly. Consequently, 100 percent of staff would be tested every month.
To encourage testing, ACSO and AC-PHD established an on-site testing program for staff in December. ACSO also stated that employees were being educated on the importance of being tested regularly.
Despite these efforts, the current testing rate is far from meeting AC-PHD’s recommendation.
155 out of 500 staff members were tested during January– only 32 percent. Of these, 112 tests were coordinated by Public Health – CORE and megabus and 48 by City Health.
In light of the low acceptance rate, the Vanguard questioned Watkins-Tartt on implementing mandatory testing for staff, a decision that CDCR made in late December. She reiterated that the County Public Health Officer has not chosen to initiate such a policy.
Given the low testing rate and low vaccination rates, many are concerned about the risk incarcerated people at Santa Rita Jail will continue to experience from deputies, medical staff and other workers for the rest of the pandemic.
According to the Outbreak Control Plan, 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. They also must be afebrile for at least 24 hours since the onset of their symptoms.
Further, 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 (10 percent or more of staff affected), the jail must discuss with AC-PHD if an asymptomatic staff member who was exposed to a positive case may continue to work while pending a test.
Since Jan. 25, approximately 730 tests have been conducted. There are currently 154 pending results. Approximately 33 percent of the jail was tested within the past two weeks, and 23 percent of the jail was tested in the past week.
Wellpath has chosen not to practice a test-based strategy to mark cases as resolved or to release individuals from quarantine. This is in accordance with CDC recommendations to discontinue transmission based precautions using symptom-based strategy alone.
However, many being released from quarantine after testing positive remain concerned about being infectious and spreading the virus to others.
In a recent testimonial, an incarcerated man at SRJ expressed concern that he was not re-tested prior to being deemed “recovered.”
Recently, HU 34D,E,F were quarantined due to “possible exposure” to a positive case. The positive case in reference was an individual who was released from quarantine while still infectious.
Durbin stated that CDC and Wellpath recommend against a test-based strategy for quarantine release. While the exposure to HU 34D,E,F was an unfortunate event, Durbin stated that Wellpath does not plan to amend their protocols and will continue to release individuals from quarantine based on symptoms alone.
Regarding the exposure, “It was a movement concern. We identified an individual as recovered, and the individual had not completely recovered. Within 30 minutes, the mistake was identified, and the individual was moved back to the appropriate housing unit.” Durbin explained.
Even though these housing pods came in close contact with an active COVID-19 case, HU D, E, and F was still scheduled to be released after a 14-day quarantine.
As of Feb. 7, the jail population count is 2198 people — the highest recorded population in the last two weeks.
Lina Garcia Schmidt is a paralegal with the National Lawyers Guild – Bay Area. She manages a hotline for Santa Rita Jail.
Schmidt received two calls from individuals in HU 25– a pod designated for those with medical vulnerabilities or “orange” patients. One patient in this unit began to show symptoms during mid-January, after which the entire unit underwent serial testing, a process in which all residents are offered testing periodically.
Since residents of HU 25 have not left the pod since before December, they fear that they were primarily exposed to coronavirus from deputies. To them, it is evidence of community transmission.
“This was an unfortunate event… For the first ten months of our exposure, we were able to protect [the high-risk] population.” said Durbin, after being pressed on the severe consequences of high-risk individuals getting infected.
Durbin added that protection is offered to all patients with medical vulnerabilities, including PPE and sanitation materials. While the HU 25 originally housed up to 120 patients, now there are only 33 patients to allow for social distancing.
However, the risk of infection spreading from deputies persists given the low testing and vaccination rates among the entire workforce. Further, staff are not being disciplined for failing to abide by the mandatory masking policy.
While there is evidence of non-compliance with masking and social distancing orders, the Sheriff’s Office has not implemented clear and concrete consequences for staff who do not wear masks other than being written up and redirected to Internal Affairs.
Between Jan. 25 – Feb. 7, 27 housing units were quarantined, of which some began quarantine prior to Jan. 25. Seven housing units were being used to house confirmed positive cases, however, there are no such units at the moment.
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 Feb. 7, there are 10 housing pods under quarantine. Of these, three are undergoing serial testing. Five were quarantined and released within the past two weeks.
This is a list of currently quarantined housing units:
- HU 4 A and HU 7 C remain quarantined due to a positive COVID-19 result until Feb. 16. No serial testing is currently being done. They were last quarantined on June 20, 2020 and Jan. 9, 2021 respectively.
- While HU 34 D, E, and F remained quarantined until Feb. 10 due to “close contact with positive COVID-19 case,” the quarantine has been extended until Feb. 19 due to another patient presenting symptoms on Feb. 5.
- HU 3 C & D remain quarantined due to a positive COVID-19 result of an index case on Jan. 13. Serial testing is being performed, and there is currently no release date.
- HU 8 E remains quarantined. While serial testing is being performed, there is currently no release date.
- HU 9 D remains quarantined due to a patient presenting symptoms on Feb. 2. It is scheduled to be released from quarantine on Feb. 17 unless the index case tests negative. (This housing pod was last quarantined on July 13, 2020.)
- HU 8 D remains quarantined due to a patient presenting symptoms on Feb. 5. It is scheduled to be released on Feb. 19 unless the index case tests negative. (This housing pod was last quarantined on Dec. 23, 2020.)
Darby Aono, a Berkeley Law student tracking COVID-19 in SRJ, questioned the jail about how HU 34 has gone through multiple transitions in terms of quarantine within the past month and a half (such as switching from “red” to “green” to “yellow” status).
Despite the status of HU 34 being inconsistent, the jail had planned to release HU 34 A, B, and C from quarantine if the index case came back negative.