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Nine Santa Cruz County correctional officers have tested positive for COVID-19 and another six are quarantining after being exposed to the virus, the sheriff’s office disclosed Monday.

This is the first COVID-19 outbreak at any of the county’s three jails. It comes as prisons and jails statewide have struggled to contain the virus.

In Santa Cruz County, no incarcerated people have shown symptoms or tested positive for the virus. That might change as officials will now conduct testing for all correctional staff and incarcerated people within the next 72 hours. Contact tracers are also working to determine the source of the outbreak, the sheriff’s office said.

Officials didn’t say whether the officers affected by the virus worked at the county’s main jail or the Blaine Street women’s jail, both in downtown Santa Cruz, or the Rountree Medium Facility in Watsonville.

“Several correctional officers displayed symptoms of illness at work,” late last week, according to a statement from the sheriff’s office. It was unclear exactly when they were diagnosed, but all 15 officers were off work as of Monday.

Word of the outbreak in the corrections system surfaced as the county was seeing all-time highs in active positive coronavirus cases (1,089); COVID-19 related hospitalizations (40 people, including 4 in intensive care); and in the 14-day average of daily new cases.

The statewide problem

Over eight months into a pandemic that has been especially virulent in crowded settings, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is still grappling with new outbreaks and old criticisms as the coronavirus continues to surge in some of its 35 prisons.

With a large wave of cases hitting across the state, some say the corrections department has failed to enforce its own policies and protective measures, and worry that further flare-ups could wind up filling community hospital beds in places already stressed.

The department currently reports more than 3,600 active cases of the virus, with six facilities across the state having outbreaks with over 100 cases among inmates. The Substance Abuse Treatment Facility has reported more than 900 new infections in the last two weeks, the department says.

Nearly 6,000 guards and other staff including nurses and administrators have also tested positive since the pandemic began — including 117 in the last two weeks at High Desert State Prison in Lassen County — a source of consternation as the department concedes that its staff is carrying the virus behind bars, even as it admits some employees have refused testing and resisted effective masks.

Recently, 13 workers were sanctioned for noncompliance with regulations on personal protective equipment at Pelican Bay State Prison in Del Norte County in California’s far north, according to the corrections department, as county officials worried about a lack of information for contact tracing of coronavirus-positive prison staff. The situation prompted state Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) to complain at a Nov. 19 oversight hearing that the lack of enforcement and cooperation was “not good for the community.” Seventy-two guards and staff at Pelican Bay have contracted the virus, 18 of them in the last two weeks, according to the department.

Contributing: Los Angeles Times

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