Sac Sheriff refuses to disclose COVID vaccination rate for staff citing “medical privacy” reasons

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

By Aparna Komarla

Since the COVID-19 vaccination rollout began for California’s correctional officers in early 2021, the Covid In-Custody Project has been documenting their vaccination rates using the public records act and other sources. While we were able to uncover the number of fully vaccinated staff in Alameda, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties, all of our attempts to obtain this data for the Sacramento sheriff’s office have been stonewalled. 

We submitted our first public records request for the staff vaccination rate in October 2021. Sheriff Scott Jones’ office responded roughly 3 months later with a letter simply stating, “no responsive records are available.” This was despite two state-wide orders issued by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) that indirectly require sheriff’s offices to periodically ascertain the vaccination status of their staff. 

The first health order was issued in July 2021 and requires surveillance testing for unvaccinated correctional officers. The second order was issued in August 2021 (latest amendment was in February 2022) and mandates vaccines and boosters for a small group of non-medical officers working in the jails’ healthcare settings (ex: staff working in jail clinics). If the sheriff’s office in Sacramento is implementing and monitoring compliance with these orders, a record of vaccinated and unvaccinated employees must exist. But they insisted in their responses that no such records were available. 

Our most recent public records request for the staff vaccination rate, however, received a different response. We were told that the Sacramento sheriff’s office is implementing and complying with the CDPH’s July 2021 health order, but they would not release their vaccination rate as it violated the employees’ medical privacy rights. 

“The Sheriff’s Office strongly values our employees’ privacy and is concerned with the risk of unlawful data collection regarding employee medical data,” read their response. They cited California Government Code 6254(c.) and 6255, which give public agencies the right to not release files that are an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. 

Their response is egregious for two reasons. One, it contradicts their previous stance that no records of the staff vaccination rate are available. And two, since we asked for the vaccination rate of the entire office and not the vaccination status of each employee, no one’s privacy would have been compromised. An aggregated vaccination rate (ex: 60% of employees are fully vaccinated) reveals nothing about the identity of those who chose to or chose not to get vaccinated. 

Further, if medical privacy was a legitimate barrier, then the sheriff’s offices in Alameda, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties would not have been able to provide their vaccination rates. The Sacramento Sheriff’s response is unreasonable to say the least, and it illuminates a pattern of evading data transparency despite their legal obligations.

This is not the first time Sheriff Scott Jones’ office has withheld critical COVID related data. When the pandemic began, they refused to share basic data on positive cases and testing in the incarcerated population. Ultimately, after a few months, they began to post some numbers on their website. But throughout the pandemic, they have not revealed any information about positive cases or testing among staff members — a critical source of infection in correctional settings. They also do not report any data to the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) which asks sheriffs to voluntarily share data on COVID among residents and staff with them.

It is also worth noting that the public health officers in San Francisco and Santa Clara counties have mandated vaccines and boosters for all county jail correctional staff. These local health orders have more coverage than the state’s August 2021 order which mandated vaccines for only a small subset of correctional staff who work in a jail’s healthcare settings. Dr. Olivia Kasirye, director of the Sacramento public health department, has stated that her team has no interest or plans to follow San Francisco and Santa Clara and mandate vaccines for the sheriff’s staff.

Unfortunately, the CDPH and Sacramento’s local public health department do not monitor positive cases or vaccination rates in the sheriff’s office. They also do not monitor Sheriff Scott Jones’ compliance with the state’s mandatory testing and/or vaccination orders. Even Dr. Sandy Damiano, the director of Adult Correctional Health, does not have this data. There is absolutely no oversight to hold the Sheriff accountable for failing to comply with these health orders, thereby leaving an abundance of authority in his hands alone.

Sacramento’s main jail and Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center have experienced some of the worst outbreaks out of all correctional facilities in Northern California. Nearly 600 active cases were reported on a single-day during the Omicron peak and three people lost their lives from COVID-related complications. During this time, since COVID data for staff is not available, we do not know if transmission from staff to incarcerated people was prevented through weekly testing or vaccinations as the California health officer intended through their health orders.

While COVID cases are declining across the board, COVID data transparency is critical for public health leaders and academics to derive important lessons from our government’s pandemic response. Since the decision to comply with the public health officer’s orders is solely up to the Sheriff, without any data, it is impossible to hold them accountable if they have failed to honor those requirements. 

The Sacramento Sheriff’s very decision to withhold information is in itself a failure to protect the health and well being of incarcerated people.

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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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