No COVID vaccine mandate for Alameda County sheriff’s office, says public health director

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By Anjali Govindapanicker & Aparna Komarla

This report is written by the Covid In-Custody Project, which 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. 

Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail is currently recovering from its largest COVID-19 outbreak yet. At the moment, there are only 2 active cases, but in January, during the Omicron surge, over 20% of the incarcerated population had tested positive, i.e. at least 450 out of roughly 2,200 people had an active infection. This is what we know so far about vaccinations and testing for the jail population and staff:

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

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

Out of 1717 sheriff’s office employees, 70.6% are fully vaccinated as of February — a 21.2% increase since October of last year. 66.1% of the 782 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. In Santa Clara County, the public health officer mandated vaccinations for sheriff’s office employees in December of last year. The health order requires all staff members in high-risk settings such as nursing homes, long-term care facilities and correctional facilities to get vaccinated and boosted when eligible. Though the state health officer, Dr. Tomas Aragon, had issued a similar order last year, he had left correctional staff out.

Even before the order, over 90% of Santa Clara’s sheriff’s office including employees working in the jails were already fully vaccinated — 20% more than Alameda’s sheriff’s office. Kimi Watkins-Tartt, the Alameda County public health department’s director, however, has shown little inclination to follow Santa Clara County’s footsteps on this matter. When asked if her department would issue a broad vaccine mandate for the sheriff’s office, she stated that they have no such plan in place at the moment.

Mandatory surveillance testing for Santa Rita Jail’s staff

In July 2021, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issued a health order requiring staff in correctional facilities to either get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. On average, 89% of unvaccinated jail staff members have complied with testing this year, i.e. approximately 11% of them refused to undergo surveillance testing in each cycle. 

The roughly 20-40 unvaccinated and untested staff pose a significant threat to the incarcerated population. Staff members are known to be a primary vector for introducing the virus in custody, in fact 50% of the outbreaks during early 2021 in California’s state prison were linked to staff positives. In Santa Rita Jail, an outbreak in December 2020 of over 150 cases was linked to an asymptomatic deputy

Despite this risk of transmission, there are no consequences in place for staff who fail to comply. Only warning letters are being sent to non-compliant staff but even that does not go on their permanent record. At this point, an unvaccinated and untested staff member can show up at work and will not be turned away at the door if they refuse testing. Captain Luckett-Fahimi, for almost a year now, has said that they are creating a system wherein non-compliant staff are prohibited from entering the facility and placed on administrative leave. But they are no where close to having this system up and running.

It is important to note that under the current health order, vaccinated jail staff members do not need to undergo testing. But given what we know about breakthrough cases with the Omicron variant, this requirement may not be enough. Testing may be necessary for the entire jail staff regardless of their vaccination status. The public health department has stated that they have no interest in modifying the order to reflect this learning. But, they have no data or analyses on contact tracing or breakthrough infections among staff members to support this decision.

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.

Vaccinations for Santa Rita Jail’s population

Only 27% of the jail is fully vaccinated. Vaccinations are offered to residents during their mandatory 14-day intake quarantine period and in custody via sick call requests.

Mike Durbin, the health services administrator for Wellpath, the jail’s medical provider, stated in early-January that Alameda County’s public health department will assist his team with vaccine distribution in order to increase the acceptance rate. It has been over two months since this plan was announced, but there has been no movement on its implementation. Both Capt. Luckett-Fahimi, a representative for the sheriff’s office, and Donata Nilsen, a Program Specialist at the public health department, have stated that the chokehold is with county counsel who is still reviewing the terms of the agreement. 

Testing for Santa Rita Jail’s population

Testing, while not mandatory for the incarcerated population, is offered to everyone during the intake booking process. In February, 48.33% of new books refused a test during intake. In general, a significant number of pod workers, residents in open-air or quarantined housing units or those with medical vulnerabilities, refuse testing when they are offered. Mike Durbin attributes this refusal to “testing fatigue” since they have been undergoing periodic testing since the pandemic emerged in 2020.

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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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