By Tiffany Devlin
The Covid In-Custody Project partners with the Davis Vanguard to bring quantitative and qualitative reporting on the pandemic’s impact on county jails and CDCR to the public eye. This story is authored by the Covid In-Custody team.
COVID-19 cases at Santa Rita Jail have been relatively low over the past two weeks, showing a steady decline to the present day. While cases have been low, so have weekly testing rates.
12 to 16 percent of the incarcerated population was tested over any 7-day period between Feb. 10 and Feb. 23, compared to a 7-day testing rate of nearly 25 percent in mid-January.
Currently, there are 3 asymptomatic COVID-19 positive patients within a population of 2188 people.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Office reported eight new cases in the incarcerated population and one new staff/contractor case between Feb. 10 and Feb. 23.
Last week, Lisa Haefele, representative of the Alameda County Public Health Dept. announced an initiative to track incarcerated people’s views on COVID-19 vaccinations and testing.
“Our current plan is to distribute a one page survey on attitudes towards COVID-19 testing and vaccines in both English and Spanish via the inmate tablets at the jail,” said Haefele.
They plan to offer the survey to a subset of 600 to 700 incarcerated people with high-risk medical factors or those residing in areas of the jail that increase exposure to COVID-19, such as open air dormitories and intake housing units.
Regarding vaccinations, Alameda County is now moving into Phase 1B of the prioritization framework, meaning Santa Rita Jail’s staff and population are eligible for vaccines.
Capt. Dan Brodie revealed that custody staff have the option to be vaccinated at the jail on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week. The jail population will be offered vaccines starting on Feb. 23.
Patients with medical vulnerabilities will be prioritized, followed by those in open-air dormitory style housing units, pod workers, and the remaining population.
Due to weather issues in the midwest, the shipment of staff vaccinations has been delayed. However, as supply becomes available, staff and the incarcerated population may be simultaneously vaccinated in accordance with Public Health’s recommendations.
In total, 109 staff/contractor cases have been recorded since the pandemic emerged, of which 106 have recovered and 3 are active.
During the Board of Supervisors (BOS) meeting on Feb. 9, Undersheriff Lucia shared results of a survey that approximated the percentage of staff willing to be vaccinated.
“I heard the report in Santa Clara County, that 50 percent of the deputies refused the vaccine…. I’m wondering whether you think that’s gonna be the case here, because if it is, I don’t think we should reserve all those vaccines for that population,” asked Supervisor Wilma Chan.
Lucia stated that approximately 75 percent of staff are willing to be vaccinated and 25 percent were not sure and/or would want to wait for the second vaccination period.
“We’re pretty confident that a very large number of deputies will get vaccinated,” he emphasized.
While the Sheriff’s Office claims that three-fourths of staff are willing to be vaccinated and has painted an overly positive picture of staff testing rates, the data tells a different story.
The Vanguard previously uncovered that roughly 155 out of 500 staff members accepted testing during January– only 32 percent despite having access to free testing on the jail premises.
This testing rate from January does not come close to Public Health’s recommendation to test 100 percent of staff per month, or 25 percent of staff weekly.
Further, only 113 of 201 clinical staff consented to taking the vaccine– only 56 percent. According to Mike Durbin, a Wellpath representative, the remaining 44 percent have refused to be vaccinated on-site and through their own medical provider.
After a few more nurses consented, on Feb. 19, Durbin provided an updated vaccine acceptance rate of 62 percent among clinical staff.
Lucia further explained the difficulties in identifying those who had accepted testing.
“Currently [City Health] can’t provide us with the names of our deputies who they test without the waiver being signed. We haven’t tried to get them to sign the waiver.” he said. As a result, it is unknown if some staff were tested twice, however, this only means that the January testing rate may be lower than 32 percent.
As of date, there is still no update on testing rates during February, due to communication gaps between the Sheriff’s Office and City Health, the vendor for the on-site testing program.
Given that staff testing rates are not nearly close to Public Health’s recommendation and a staggering number of medical staff have refused the vaccine, the reality of custody staff accepting vaccines is rather grim. The acceptance rate will become clearer in the coming weeks.
Since Feb. 10, approximately 581 tests have been administered, of which 44 are pending results. Approximately 28 percent of the jail was tested in the past two weeks, and 15 percent in the past week alone.
During this two week period, three housing pods underwent serial testing.
Multiple accounts from incarcerated people have claimed that the jail rejects requests for tests, even when they specifically ask medical staff for one.
“It hasn’t been our policy to administer tests to anyone who asks,” Undersheriff Lucia stated in response to a question from Supervisor Carson during the Jan. 26 BOS meeting. “If they’re symptomatic, absolutely… But in many cases, when they’re not symptomatic, they won’t be tested.”
“There are people who have requested tests four separate times, and have been refused each time. Everyone in Santa Rita Jail should be offered a test, and no one should be refused,” urged Darby Aono, a community activist, during the meeting.
Lucia also stated that while the Sheriff has the authority to mandate testing for staff, he has chosen not to take that stance. This is despite CDCR implementing mandatory for staff contingent on their employment, and numerous activists calling for more stringent protocols for staff.
On Jan. 1, HU 4 A and 7 C were quarantined after two positive COVID-19 cases were transferred into the dorm due to an “administrative error.”
“That was a small error in movement, again, much like the HU 34 situation before. We had some delay in testing results from the state lab, and these individuals had cleared their 14-day quarantines… then results on their 10-day testing were made known, and two individuals within the group of 40-50 tests were both 10-days positive.” Durbin explained.
He added that after these individuals cleared their 14-day quarantine, they spent a brief period of time in both HU 4 A and 7 C. As soon as the results were made aware, they were immediately removed from these housing units.
“No other positives were identified in future testing, so we do not believe there was a transmission.” said Durbin. When asked for the percentage of both housing units that were tested after the exposure, he claimed that all individuals were offered testing.
Regarding the error with HU 34 that was similar to HU 4A and 7C, Durbin said, “There was a very, very minimal exposure there, and again, they were quarantined for 14 days and monitored for future symptoms. That dormitory was a very high-attack rate from a previous outbreak – there was an incredibly low risk there.”
Kimi Watkins-Tartt, Director of Public Health explained that “If there’s a positive case, then everyone [in the housing unit] is recommended to be tested. But if it’s an exposure, not necessarily.”
Community activists remain concerned about Public Health’s recommendations and the implementation of testing and quarantine protocols, as multiple housing units have been quarantined repeatedly in short spans of time. Many fear that the virus is lurking in these units and going undetected due to minimal testing, putting incoming residents and others in the jail at risk.
In the last two weeks, 24 housing units were under quarantine. Roughly 17 of them were quarantined for the second time in the past two months or earlier.
The Sheriff’s Office 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. 23, there are eight units quarantined, of which two are undergoing serial testing. 11 were quarantined and released within the past two weeks.
This is a list of currently quarantined housing units:
- HU 8 D remains quarantined due to a patient presenting symptoms on Feb. 21. It was last quarantined on Feb. 6– earlier this month.
- HU 32 D, E, and F remain quarantined due to a patient presenting symptoms on Feb. 21. They were last quarantined on Dec. 29, 2020.
- HU 9 E and F remain quarantined due to a patient presenting symptoms on Feb. 21. HU 9 E was last quarantined on Feb. 4, while HU 9 F was last quarantined on Jan. 19.
- 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