Santa Cruz County main jail on October 2020
Santa Cruz County’s main jail on October 2020. The county’s jail facilities are facing a COVID-19 outbreak among correctional officers that began last week.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

County officials investigating if ‘party’ attended by sheriff’s employees led to COVID-19 jail outbreak

Santa Cruz County officials are investigating whether a party attended by sheriff’s office employees led to a coronavirus outbreak at two of the county’s three jails, Lookout Santa Cruz has learned.

Reached Tuesday evening, county Health Officer Gail Newel said she couldn’t yet confirm any details about the outbreak’s cause, including whether a party played a role.

“We’re doing a case investigation to determine the actual cause,” Newel said. “We just started doing a case investigation that will take a few days.”

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But multiple sources, speaking on condition of anonymity later on, said that Newel earlier in the day replied “yes” when asked whether a gathering of sheriff’s employees led to the outbreak. The question came during a meeting of the county’s Economic Recovery Council, a group organized by county officials and Community Foundation Santa Cruz County to plot local business’ path back to fiscal health amid the virus and after it subsides.

Newel couldn’t immediately be reached for further clarification late Tuesday, but on Wednesday morning — after this story was published — county spokesperson Jason Hoppin clarified the exchange during the meeting.

He explained Newel said “yes” to the question about the party as an acknowledgement she heard the question — not to confirm the party was the cause of the outbreak.

Regardless of what happened during the meeting, both Hoppin and sheriff’s officials confirmed Wednesday morning that a gathering of sheriff’s employees is being probed in connection with the outbreak. For updates on that story, click here.

“The gathering should not have happened,” Hoppin said. “But it’s too early to say it’s the source of any outbreak.”

Regardless of what caused the outbreak, the county’s Communicable Disease Team, which is in charge of testing and contact tracing countywide, now has another big task trying to investigate and contain the virus not only within the jail system, but throughout the rest of the county, which is seeing record COVID-19 case numbers.

At least 15% of Santa Cruz County’s 111 correctional officers are infected with or have been exposed to COVID-19, according to the latest information from the sheriff’s department. As of Tuesday afternoon, one new officer had tested positive and another is quarantining after being exposed, bringing the total to 10 officers with COVID-19 and seven in quarantine due to exposure.

“We know that jails and prisons are really effective incubators for this virus. They are places where when there is an outbreak, it spreads like wildfire in much the same way as other congregate living facilities,” says Aaron Littman, a Binder Clinical Teaching Fellow at UCLA School of Law. He is one of two people spearheading UCLA’s COVID Behind Bars Project.

Almost all of the officers who are out sick or quarantining work in the main jail downtown in Santa Cruz. One works in the county’s Rountree Medium Facility in Watsonville, sheriff’s department spokesperson Ashley Keehn said Tuesday afternoon.

Absences will be filled by the county’s remaining correctional officers or by sheriff’s deputies “who have jail experience,” Keehn said.

“Certainly a big concern with these rapid outbreaks — and it sounds like this is a fast-moving outbreak — is that correctional officers get sick, don’t come to work because they’re sick or because they’re quarantining because they were exposed or frankly don’t come to work because they’re scared of getting exposed understandably, and staffing levels go down which impacts the safety of incarcerated people in the facilities, their ability to access medical care and all sorts of things,” Littman said.

There had been no known COVID-19 infections among other jail staff members, or among the 324 people incarcerated in county facilities, according to the sheriff’s department.

Officials said Monday that they would test all inmates within 72 hours after news of the outbreak was made public, though it is unknown how many tests were administered by Tuesday.

Officer-inmate ratio

With such a sizable percentage of correctional officers out due to the virus, the obvious question is how does it affect the officer to inmate ratio and safety within the jails.

Littman and national expert, Michele Deitch with the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs concur that there is no ideal ratio for optimum safety in jails and prisons.

A lot of factors play into an optimum ratio including, the layout of the facilities, “if the facility is on lockdown, how much movement of the incarcerated people is happening at that time,” Deitch says.

“The more (officers) get sick, the more they’re stretched thin, the more they’re using people who are working exceptionally long hours or are not familiar with the facility or don’t know the people that are incarcerated there. So it’s definitely a problem and a reason for concern,” says Littman.

Word of the outbreak in the corrections system surfaced as the county was seeing all-time highs in active positive coronavirus cases; COVID-19 related hospitalizations; and in the 14-day average of daily new cases.

Littman says an outbreak like the one at the Santa Cruz jails could be “a real threat, not just to the people who live and work in the jail but everyone around.”

“When more incarcerated individuals and staff get infected, that spreads virus back out into the community. So it’s sort of feeding cases into Santa Cruz County. All those correctional officers who are sick have exposed presumably their families, may have infected their families, may have infected people who they had Thanksgiving with and people who were infected in the jail and released may do the same,” he explained.

Protocols before the outbreak

County officials have been testing incarcerated people for COVID-19 twice — first as they enter the jail, and then after a required 14-day isolation period — before moving them into a cell.

“Both tests must come back negative before they go into a housing unit,” Keehn said in an email.

According to sheriff’s department protocols, employees who test positive for coronavirus are required to stay home for at least 14 days. They are only allowed to return to work after they have been symptom-free for 72 hours and have a negative test result, Keehn said.