By Tiffany Devlin
ALAMEDA, CA — Santa Rita Jail has reported 109 total COVID-19 cases among staff/contractors since the pandemic emerged. All of them have recovered, leaving no current cases.
On March 1, Alameda County’s Health Officer issued a health order making staff testing mandatory at the jail.
According to the order, effective March 1, it is mandatory for every Sheriff’s Office employee working at the jail to be tested once every 14 days. If circumstances change, the health officer may increase the frequency of testing.
While this decision is the first of its kind in California’s county jail system, it comes after a sequence of failed attempts by the Sheriff’s Office to comply with Public Health’s recommendation to test 100 percent of staff per month or 25 percent of staff per week.
Testing among staff is imperative to prevent possible infections, primarily those that are asymptomatic, from affecting the jail population. Across the country, carceral institutions have reported linkages between staff infections and outbreaks among incarcerated people. Santa Rita Jail is no exception.
In one instance, a massive surge in staff cases towards the end of last year triggered an outbreak within the jail population in December.
“The Sheriff’s Office and Wellpath did the appropriate contact tracing for this outbreak and determined that there was a high probability that an asymptomatic Deputy was the vector for introducing the virus into HU 34” said Mike Brady, a lead investigator at Sabot Consulting, who monitors compliance at Santa Rita Jail.
Until December of last year, the Sheriff’s Office had not proactively implemented a testing program for staff. Infections were being monitored and identified primarily through symptoms checks. If a staff member was tested, it was voluntary and through their own provider.
On Dec. 18, the Alameda County Public Health Dept. and Sheriff’s Office introduced an on-site testing program to encourage staff members to get tested on a regular basis. Under the program, testing is available on the jail’s premises for no cost and on multiple days per week.
When the program was introduced, Kimi Watkins-Tartt, Director of the Public Health Dept. stated that it was “easier” and “quicker” to make staff testing voluntary instead of mandatory.
Danice Cook, a representative from the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency similarly stated that based on the acceptance rate, they would assess whether a mandatory testing policy was warranted.
It is worth noting that around the same time, CDCR, the system of 35 state prisons in California, made testing among staff mandatory and contingent on their employment or pay. Since then, the refusal rate has dropped to less than 1 percent.
In spite of having access to accessible and free testing, the acceptance rate among Santa Rita Jail’s staff was shockingly low during January and February.
In January, 155 out of 500 staff members accepted testing – only 32 percent based on data obtained by the Vanguard. It does not come close to Public Health’s recommendation to test 100 percent of staff per month.
Despite these results, Watkins-Tartt held that mandatory testing was “not a recommendation that the County Health Officer was willing to make”
In February, expectations for staff participation in testing increased after a Board of Supervisors meeting in which Undersheriff Lucia spoke highly about “hundreds” of jail staff being tested.
Despite Lucia’s claims, the results were bleak.
Captain Dan Brodie was unable to provide accurate testing data for the entire month of February citing “communication challenges” with City Health, the vendor for the on-site testing program.
From the data he was able to obtain, for the last week of February, 18 out of 550 sworn staff were tested, only three percent.
During the same week, 17 out of 134 full-time medical staff were tested, only 12 percent.
While staff may have received tests from their personal providers besides City Health, the Sheriff’s Office did not have a centralized system to record and aggregate these data points.
The absence of accurate data and a system to provide conclusive information about the extent of testing, were major gaps in the voluntary testing program.
Overall, the acceptance rates for January and February were far below the recommended level and ultimately resulted in Public Health’s decision to issue the mandatory testing order.
The Sheriff’s Office is required to provide a summary report on March 29 to Public Health, which details acceptance rates and compliance for the month.
Last week, the Vanguard requested the Sheriff’s Office for details about the policy’s implementation and penalties those who fail to comply will face. While Capt. Brodie was unaware of these details at the time, it will likely become clearer in the coming weeks.
Needless to say, testing is not the only mitigation strategy to control infections. Masking and social distancing are also important, but the implementation of these protocols at the jail has not been fool proof.
On Feb. 3, for example, a caller from the SRJ Solidarity Hotline stated that deputies in Housing Unit 4 fail to wear their masks when the Sergeant is not in the housing unit.
A caller from Housing Unit 6 reported that deputies repeatedly removed their masks, or simply did not wear them properly over both the nose and mouth.
Mike Brady also reported concerns about staff not following masking orders in his Sept. 22 spot check. After deputies observed examples of no proper social distancing and incorrect use of PPE inside the facility, they made no effort to correct these violations, as required by Commander Sanchez’s July 22 “Housing Unit Updated Inmate-Mask Wearing” station order.
Brady wrote, “the Station Orders issued by Assistant Sheriff Madigan and Commander Sanchez must be strictly enforced and staff and supervisors who fail to do so should be disciplined.”
Despite Brady’s recommendation, consequences for staff failing to comply with mask-wearing regulations and social distancing were not established. The only consequences in place are warnings or advisements.
Community members have critiqued the lack of disciplinary action staff members who fail to comply with mandatory masking orders face. There has also been criticism about Public Health’s proactiveness on the mandatory testing matter, given that the pandemic is reaching its 1-year mark.
Nevertheless, mandatory testing is a step in the right direction.