Concerns Rise as Vaccine Acceptance Drops to 34 Percent at Santa Rita Jail

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By Tiffany Devlin

Davis Vanguard’s bi-weekly update on SRJ’s COVID-19 crisis

ALAMEDA, CA– COVID-19 cases at Santa Rita Jail (SRJ) have been steadily rising over the past two weeks. Currently, there are five positive cases at SRJ, all of which are asymptomatic. 

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) reported 10 new cases within the incarcerated population and no new staff/contractor cases between March 18 and April 5.

Four cases within the incarcerated population were resolved or released within the past two weeks.

Weekly testing rates between March 18 and April 5 have steadily increased from 11 percent to nearly 20 percent. This increase in weekly testing rates may be due to the ongoing serial testing for quarantined housing units that commenced mid-March.

Vaccine Report

On March 1, ACSO started administering vaccinations to the medically vulnerable incarcerated population. They initially offered 101 first-doses, of which 79 people or 78 percent accepted. 

However, the vaccine acceptance rate dropped significantly over the course of the month. By April 5, around 1201 vaccines (first-dose Moderna and Johnson & Johnson) were offered within a population of nearly 2200 people, of which only 412 individuals or less than 34 percent accepted. 

253 people accepted the first dose and 128 people received the second dose of the Moderna vaccine. 159 people accepted the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Roughly 11 percent of SRJ’s population is fully vaccinated now.

Community activists and organizers have highlighted that “distrust” in medical staff is a part of the reason incarcerated populations are hesitant to accept vaccines. This is a nationwide phenomenon, which UCLA Law professor Dr. Shannon Dolovich describes in her article “Willingness to Receive COVID-19 Vaccination among Incarcerated or Detained Persons in Correctional and Detention Facilities — Four States, September–December 2020,” published in the April 2 issue of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). 

Dolovich writes, “One obstacle to getting the vaccine inside prisons and jails is the failure of public health bodies to prioritize incarcerated people… But even with available vaccines, levels of trust toward authorities are generally very low in prisons and jails. The speculation has been that there would be a high number of residents who would decline vaccines, thus compromising the mission of getting herd immunity inside. Unfortunately, our study bears that out.”

To ensure that the vaccines allocated for SRJ by the Alameda County Public Health Dept. are not wasted, Mike Durbin, Health Services Administrator for Wellpath, stated that medical staff perform a consent count prior to puncturing a vial to estimate the number of people who would accept a dose.

The Janssen vaccine contains five doses per vial, while the Moderna vaccine contains 10 doses per vial.

Kimi Watkins-Tartt, Director of Alameda County Public Health Dept., added that in order to ensure the allocation received for Alameda County is utilized fully, they actively move vaccines between different providers. If a provider is not using an allocation quickly enough, they move it so that they are not holding on to extra vaccines.

Jail News

A survey developed by the Alameda County Public Health Dept. to track incarcerated people’s views on COVID-19 vaccinations and testing was offered on tablets and on paper between March 30 through April 2.

There is a bilingual phone line available for the incarcerated population for translation. The survey and various flyers within the jail have also been translated into all threshold languages.

The results of the survey are yet to be shared. 

Staff Report

109 staff/contractor cases have been recorded since the pandemic emerged. All of them have recovered, leaving no current cases. The testing rate for staff during the month of March is currently unknown.

On March 1, the Alameda County Health Officer issued a mandatory staff testing order for all ACSO employees who work at SRJ. 

This order was implemented after multiple failures from ACSO to comply with Public Health’s recommendation to test 100 percent of staff per month or 25 percent of staff per week. In January, only 32 percent of staff accepted testing, despite having access to free testing on the jail’s premises.

More details about the implementation of the order were shared over the last two weeks. 

During the Board of Supervisors (BOS) meeting on March 16, Undersheriff Richard Lucia stated that “the data on vaccinations for employees of the Sheriff’s Office would be provided soon.” He added that since staff members must consent to being a part of the total vaccination count, the reported number may not be precise.

Capt. Dan Brodie stated that as of March 26, nearly 220 tests have been administered out of over 500 staff members through Simple Healthkit. He added that staff members are required by ACSO to do a self-administered test with oversight at their duty station. They are also not allowed to be tested through their personal providers to ensure that data is centralized.

Further, according to Capt. Brodie, the funding for these mandatory tests would come from an employee’s insurance provider. If ACSO runs into issues with this process, he stated that the county would have to fund the implementation since it was ordered by a public agency.

ACSO is required to provide a summary report on March 29 to Public Health, detailing acceptance rates and compliance for the month of March. The Vanguard is working on accessing this report.

Testing Report

Since March 18, approximately 994 tests have been administered, of which 75 are pending results. Approximately 36 percent of the jail was tested in the last two weeks and 18 percent in the past week.

The testing rate may be higher than usual due to surveillance/serial testing for quarantined housing units that commenced mid-March.

At SRJ, newly booked individuals are given the option to undergo testing during the intake process. This strategy is meant to prevent infections from the general population from entering the jail. However, nearly 57 percent of new books have refused to be tested.

Given the high refusal rate, community members and organizers have been urging the Alameda County Public Health Dept. to mandate testing at intake, similar to the protocol adopted by Santa Clara County. 

In Santa Clara County’s jails, testing for newly booked individuals is presented as a “required part of intake,” and they are subjected to isolated housing if they refuse. Although they still have the option to refuse, staff inform them that they cannot move forward with procedures and/or treatments if they do not consent to testing.

Alameda County Public Health Dept. has historically recommended that SRJ offer testing without any consequence. In light of discussions with Santa Clara County Public Health Dept., they have decided to take a different approach moving forward. Although testing for the incarcerated population will still be optional, ACSO plans to frame it as a required part of intake and would emphasize that testing is safe, effective and accurate.

ACSO states that it is continuing to explore more options in order to encourage testing, given that over half of the intake population refuses testing.

It is important to note that for surveillance/serial testing, which is conducted in housing units exposed to a positive case, housing a positive case or a suspected positive case, the refusal rate is 26 percent. 

Population Report

The jail population peaked at 2267 people on March 8– one of the highest population counts during the pandemic. On March 31, the population further rose to 2271 people.

A recent article by KALW showed that remote courts may be leading to a rise in the population in SRJ.

In arraignments prior to the pandemic, public defenders met with their clients before going into court. Now, people in SRJ do not have the chance to see their attorney before being logged in to a virtual courtroom. 

The defendant must be seen by the Sheriff’s Deputy, judge, District Attorney (DA), and their Defense Attorney all at once.

“That is the first time that they will know that there is an attorney there to represent them, because we have no access to them prior to seeing them … in the courtroom.” said Aundrea Brown, Alameda County Public Defender to KALW.

On top of that, Brown stated that the court process has slowed down significantly with remote courtrooms due to the lack of video conferencing equipment available. 

Prior to the pandemic Alameda County had 30 courtrooms operating per day. Remote proceedings meant that these 30 courtrooms had to share only three video consoles for hearings.

Brown also stated the DA and judges were following the zero-bail policy and releasing people accused of less serious offenses. 

However, there were more requests by the DA’s office to step outside of the emergency bail schedule, thereby holding more people in custody as time went on.

The DA’s Office provided statistics to KALW on bail set on charges that qualified for zero bail. SRJ’s population may have increased due to the number of cases that have had bail set, despite qualifying for zero bail.

Housing Report

Between March 18 and April 5, a total of nine housing units were quarantined. Currently, six housing units are under quarantine, all of which are undergoing surveillance/serial testing.

Roughly eight of the total housing units were quarantined for the second time in the last two months, or re-quarantined since the pandemic started. 

During this period of time, at least two housing units had accidental exposures to other positive COVID-19 patients.

HU 24 A, B, and C were originally quarantined on March 11 and immediately subjected to serial testing due to an exposure to a positive COVID-19 patient. ACSO then moved HU 24 A, B, and C to HU 35 A, B, and C to continue serial testing. This group of patients continue to be held in HU 35 A, B, and C for serial testing.

HU 33 A, B, and C were quarantined March 18 and also immediately subjected to serial testing, but due to a “positive COVID-19 patient upon release.” They continue to be held for serial testing.

Only two housing pods were quarantined and then released during this period of time.

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.

Here is a list of quarantined housing units as of April 5:

  • HU 24 A, B, and C (now HU 35 A, B, and C) remain quarantined due to an exposure to a COVID-19 positive patient. They have been moved to HU 35 A, B, and C for serial testing, which began on March 11. Mass testing began on March 11. Serial testing was extended by 14 days due to “positive reported cases” on March 27.
  • HU 33 A, B, and C have been quarantined due to an “exposure from positive COVID-19 patient upon release.” They have been subject to serial testing with no set release date. (Last released from quarantine on Jan. 6.) Mass testing began on March 19. Serial testing was extended by 14 days due to a positive reported case on March 28.
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