A photo shows the Santa Cruz County Jail.
Santa Cruz County Jail
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Sheriff: No ‘heavy discipline, termination’ for officers after gathering may have led to jail COVID outbreak

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart has set a Jan. 6 deadline to complete an investigation into whether a large gathering led to a coronavirus outbreak among correctional officers. Hart called it a “learning moment” for the people involved, “for them to understand that their actions impact more than just themselves.”

In the wake of a coronavirus outbreak among some of its correctional officers earlier this month, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office is in the process of conducting its own investigation into whether the outbreak stemmed from a gathering that some of the officers attended.

Sheriff Jim Hart told Lookout that jail managers are sitting down with each of the officers involved to determine whether there was a party and, if so, where it took place and who held it. The outbreak ended up sidelining 17 correctional officers who either tested positive for the virus or were exposed to it — all of whom have since returned to work.

“What we’re hearing is there was some sort of a gathering,” Hart said. “And some of these people, not all of them, but some of them were at this gathering. And that’s where some of them contracted the illness.”

He added that he thought it may have been “overstated” about all 17 contracting the virus at the party. “I don’t think that’s the case,” Hart said.

When the outbreak was disclosed earlier this month, a county health official said “a large gathering outside of work that some correctional officers participated in” might have led to it.

Health officials conducted contact tracing to see if that was the case. But they were only able to share a piece of their report with the sheriff’s office due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a federal law designed to protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without the patient’s consent.

Regardless, Hart said he is conducting an investigation of his own.

“As they’re returning to work now we have managers in the jail that are sitting down with each person and talking with them and finding out exactly what happened,” Hart said. “And then I’ve set a deadline of Jan. 6 for my staff to get me that report so that I could examine the report and then have a discussion about what we’re going to do in terms of next steps.”

Some county leaders have previously slammed the event, saying it should have never happened because of the public health risks it posed. “What this group of people chose to do was dumb and irresponsible, but it should be seen in the larger context,” Santa Cruz County District 3 Supervisor Ryan Coonerty said when Lookout first broke the story.

Hart called it a “learning moment” for the people involved, “for them to understand that their actions impact more than just themselves.” He said he doesn’t think it’s uncommon for people after nine months of pandemic “to make these kinds of mistakes.”

“What I want to emphasize to our staff is that they’re different in that if they make this mistake and they bring this virus back to the jail, it could impact a lot of people,” Hart said. “And they just need to understand that. And so there’s going to be some education or maybe some discipline behind it but I don’t want to jump to any conclusions until I see the report.”

Nobody will be fired over the incident, he said.

“I have no intention of imposing heavy discipline or termination on any of these people,” Hart said.

Already battling staffing issues due to the pandemic, Hart said his goal was to get people healthy and back to work.

Spread of virus still affecting sheriff’s office

At any given time, he said, about 10% of his agency’s staff — deputies, correctional officers and others — are off, either because they were exposed to the virus or because they contracted it. On Thursday, close to 30 staff were either quarantined due to exposure or had tested positive. Staff members are tested once a week when they return from their days off.

“It’s anywhere from records clerks to correctional officers to deputy sheriffs,” he said. “It’s running through the uniformed personnel and also the non-sworn personnel.”

But so far, the virus has not spread to jail inmates. After two rounds of testing, all 350 incarcerated people have tested negative, Hart said. A third round is underway.

“The plan is to test 25% of the incarcerated people every week, so that a person gets a test once a month,” Hart said. “Now if somebody is symptomatic, then, of course, we’ll test them.”

In a couple of instances, when people are tested during booking they have returned positive results, he said. They then go into an isolation unit. Inmates are tested twice over a 14-day period before they can enter the general jail population.

Hart said he thinks the virus didn’t spread from correctional officers to inmates because of the policies he and his staff have put in place. The group that contracted the virus worked one night, but they were wearing personal protective equipment, like N95 masks and goggles.

And contact between staff and inmates has been “minimal” during the pandemic, he said.

“We used to go into the units a lot, have a lot of face-to-face discussions and so we’ve backed off that, just for circumstances like this,” Hart said. “So I think because of some of the protections that were put in place that it didn’t spread.”