No court access for Santa Rita Jail’s quarantined residents; COVID outbreak worsens by the day

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By Aparna Komarla & Anjali Govindapanicker

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.

Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail is currently experiencing its largest COVID-19 outbreak yet. At its peak, nearly 20% of the jail had tested positive. There are 200 active cases in the incarcerated population at the moment and another 80 cases among jail staff and contractors. 

COVID-19 active cases in Santa Rita Jail custody. See www.covidincustody.org to view and download data

Vaccinations for Santa Rita Jail’s population

Only 28.19% of the jail population is fully vaccinated.  

Previously, Mike Durbin, health services administrator for Wellpath, the jail’s medical provider, stated that his team will receive assistance from Alameda County’s public health department with vaccine distribution for the incarcerated population. He stated that their plan to expand vaccine and booster acceptance is in the final phase and expected to begin on Jan. 22.

Testing for Santa Rita Jail’s population

Testing is not mandatory for the incarcerated population; however, it is offered to everyone during the intake booking process. This month, 71% of new books have refused a test during intake. Mike Durbin stated that several housing units at the jail are undergoing mass surveillance testing due to significant exposure to confirmed positive cases.

During this outbreak, 11 patients COVID-19 positive patients were moved to the infirmary and 4 stayed overnight but no one was hospitalized, according to Durbin.

Vaccinations for staff in Santa Rita Jail and Sheriff’s Office

Out of 1723 sheriff’s office employees, 60.7% are fully vaccinated as of Jan. 13 — a 11% increase since October of last year. 62.1% of the 750 sheriff’s employees working at the jail are fully vaccinated. 

While there is a health order in place which requires weekly testing of unvaccinated jail staff, there is no county or state order that mandates vaccinations.

Mandatory testing implementation for Santa Rita Jail’s staff

California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issued a health order on July 26, 2021, requiring staff in correctional facilities to either get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. In the week of Dec. 12, 98.4% of the unvaccinated staff members complied with the testing requirement. The compliance rate with testing has been over 97% in the last two months.

Updates on vaccination for Wellpath medical staff

The CDPH has mandated vaccinations for healthcare staff working in correctional facilities. The deadline for full compliance was in October of last year. All Wellpath employees working at Santa Rita Jail are required to comply but only 94% are fully vaccinated.

100% of the 18 sheriff’s office employees who work in the outpatient housing unit and hospital are fully vaccinated.

Court hearings delayed due to staffing shortages

Given the high infection rate among those in custody, the sheriff’s office has made attempts to limit movement in and out of the jail. Since employees are also falling sick with COVID-19, staffing shortages are affecting several services in custody, including transportation. According to Commander Sanchez, the jail is currently “running on 10% overtime,” but this coverage does not include staff members who can transport individuals to and from court hearings. Community members and public defenders have raised concerns that people are being held in custody longer than needed due to these limitations. 

Kath Ryals, a public defender in Alameda County stated, “It is very difficult to get a date in the bail court to have a motion heard. Transportation staff at SRJ is limited and with quarantine, many inmates are not being brought to Dept. 13 for those motions. Dept. 13 has no video hookup to SRJ so if the inmate is not brought, the motion won’t be heard. There is a significant backup.”

The sheriff’s office responded that incarcerated people can attend their arraignments via video when they cannot be brought to court. But public defenders Patrick Jensen and Daniel Duvernay pointed out that individuals under quarantine are not being given access to video arraignments.

“Individuals in quarantine are frequently not brought to video arraignment for days beyond what would be their normal arraignment period. They are listed as med scratch and not arraigned,” said Patrick Jensen. “We had several people on calendar today in Department 712 Felony Arraignment court for South County who have been in quarantine since last week, and they have just been trailing day to day for Arraignment.”

Daniel Duvernay added, “Individuals in quarantine are also not brought to court over video for other important court hearings such as pre-trial hearings and report and sentencing.”

When community members questioned if the jail population is increasing as a result of court proceedings slowing down, the sheriff’s office responded that they have no reason to believe that is the case.  

Contact tracing for ongoing outbreak

Staff members are known to be a primary vector for introducing the virus in custody, which makes it imperative for public health leaders and sheriff’s office to implement practices that can prevent such transmission. While it is unclear if the current surge was due to staff positives, we can rule out the newly booked individuals as a primary source. Mike Durbin stated that since all new books are required to quarantine for 14-days prior to entering the general population, it is unlikely that they could have transmitted the virus. The public health department could not provide detailed contact tracing results when asked.

It is worth noting that under the CDPH’s July 26 health order, vaccinated staff members are not required to undergo weekly testing, which gives way for breakthrough infections among staff to go unnoticed. In December 2020, an outbreak of over 150 active COVID-19 cases was linked to an asymptomatic deputy. Currently there are 86 positive cases among staff and contractors. 

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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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