SF’s Jails Have A COVID Data Transparency Problem, Sheriff and Public Health Dept. Must Step Up

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By Aparna Komarla & Aziza Nussipov

This report is written by the Covid In-Custody Project — an independent journalism project that partners with the Davis Vanguard to bring reporting on the pandemic in California’s county jails and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to the public eye. Refer to our website to view and download the raw data.

San Francisco’s jails have reported the lowest COVID-19 infection rate and population size during the pandemic of all county jails being tracked in Northern California. Though they have taken the lead in infection-control, they are falling behind other counties in terms of data transparency.

The sheriff’s office reports that 180 total COVID-19 cases have been identified so far during the intake booking process or in custody. But due to a high turnover rate in the jail population, there have been no more than 15 active cases on a single day. The population has also been extremely low. There were close to 1,300 people in custody in October 2019, but by April 2020, this number had fallen to 750. A range of decarceration measures, particularly zero-bail and the Buffin Judgement, ensured that the population did not cross 850 during the pandemic despite over 12,000 total bookings. This is in contrast to Alameda or Santa Clara county’s jails, which hold close to 2,200 people each and have reported outbreaks affecting over 5% of them.

While the public health department and the sheriff’s office have made strides in their pandemic response, there are deficiencies in their actions, particularly regarding transparency that must be addressed.

Quality of vaccination data for incarcerated population

San Francisco’s public health department provided comprehensive vaccination data for the jail population on a few occasions. But it is neither available consistently nor is it publicly accessible through the sheriff’s website where the COVID-19 cases and testing stats are posted. 

COVID-19 vaccination data for incarcerated populations in Northern California’s county jails

Through public records requests and email communication with the county, we were able to uncover that roughly 57% of the population was fully vaccinated in mid-June. Since county jails are transitory in nature, it is important that the data is disaggregated between vaccinated individuals still in custody and those who were released or transferred. While San Francisco followed this standard, it is unfortunately not the norm. In Sacramento, for example, the healthcare services department simply provides a count of individuals who received a dose from them, but they do not subtract those who are no longer incarcerated, thereby making it impossible to calculate the vaccination rate. 

Although San Francisco’s data report was more sophisticated, the county has generally not been consistent or forthcoming with this information. The only data points available are for May and June. Our public records requests for data in July and August were ignored. 

No data on cases or testing for jail staff

Over the course of the pandemic, the sheriff’s website states that 7,038 total tests have been conducted for employees in the sheriff’s office, of which 121 came back as positive

The reported data has two severe limitations:

  1. Only tests administered at “city sites” are counted, meaning if an employee tests positive through their personal provider they are not included, and
  2. The total confirmed cases count is not disaggregated by the jail and non-jail staff. As a result, positive staff cases are undercounted and there is no information about the extent of infections among those who interact with incarcerated people on a daily basis. Our public records requests for better quality data that addresses these issues have been ignored.

These limitations also make it difficult to determine if the staff testing rate has been adequate. In fact, it is impossible to measure any correlation between outbreaks among jail staff and the incarcerated population with the current data, which is critical given that staff members are a key vector for introducing the virus in correctional settings. 

In March 2021, to combat this risk of transmission, the public health department mandated regular testing for all city and county employees who enter the jail’s premises. While the mandate was a strong step in a positive direction, little is known about its success. Our public records requests for compliance rates have been left unanswered for months. 

A few months later, the state public health department ordered that all unvaccinated staff in correctional settings must either get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Compliance with this order is also unknown.

No data on vaccinations for jail staff

When we first requested data on staff vaccinations, Nancy Crowley, a sheriff’s office spokesperson, outrightly stated that HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) restrictions prevent them from making any data about employees’ vaccinations public. However, when the health officer mandated vaccinations for city and county employees in June 2021, some details on the vaccination rate for the sheriff’s office as a whole began to emerge. But even still, there is no data on the sheriff’s office employees who specifically work at the jails.

As the Sept. 15 deadline for compliance with the health order approached, the Associated Press reported that 86% of the sheriff’s office was fully vaccinated as of Aug. 6. Through a public records request, we were able to retrieve a single data point for the custody bureau, but it is not nearly enough to determine the vaccination rate for jail staff as a whole.

“Of the 455 sworn staff assigned to custody, 269 have self-reported as fully vaccinated” read the sheriff’s office’s response to our request. While 59% of sworn custody staff are immunized as of July 2, the data says nothing about the 32 custody civilian staff, or other non-custody sheriff’s office members who work at the jail. “We cannot provide more detail regarding staff members assigned to work at the San Francisco jails, as this information poses a risk to the safety and security of the jails,” they stated.

Further, since the vaccination count is obtained by tallying the vaccination cards employees submit to Human Resources, the data could be an undercount since some employees may choose not to report their status.

Ultimately, it is impossible to determine how many staff who enter the jail are vaccinated. The testing, cases and vaccination information that is currently available is masked by aggregations across the sheriff’s office, and despite multiple requests, the disaggregated data is nowhere in sight.

We urge the public health department, mayor and sheriff’s office to prioritize data transparency in their pandemic response, and be prompt and forthcoming in reporting compliance rates with health orders. Data driven decision making cannot be the exception, it must be the norm.

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About The Author

Aparna Komarla leads the Covid In-Custody project, which partners with the Davis Vanguard to bring reporting on the pandemic's impact on county jails and CDCR to the public eye. See www.covidincustody.org for more information.

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