A file image of the Santa Cruz County Jail
The Santa Cruz County Jail.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID 2021

‘Dumb and irresponsible’: Officials slam ‘large gathering’ that might have caused COVID-19 jail outbreak

Attendees of event test positive and negative as full scope of jail outbreak remains unclear. The gathering, a county supervisor said, “should not have happened.”

As health officials investigate if a “large gathering” attended by correctional officers last week might have sparked the COVID-19 outbreak in Santa Cruz County’s jail system, county leaders say the event never should have happened because of the public health risks it posed.

Much about the gathering remained unclear Wednesday, including to what extent it violated California’s COVID-19 restrictions in effect in purple-tier Santa Cruz County. All indoor social gatherings with people from outside of one’s own household are prohibited. Gatherings of up to three households, including the hosts, are permitted outdoors.

If the deputies violated COVID-19 protocols or departmental policy, Sheriff Jim Hart would be in charge of taking disciplinary action, according to Santa Cruz County District 3 Supervisor Ryan Coonerty.

“We don’t control what people do on their off time, but I think we need to make sure that the sheriff is working with his team to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Coonerty said. “What this group of people chose to do was dumb and irresponsible, but it should be seen in the larger context.”

Coonerty worries that the actions of the relatively small group might diminish the work of the hundreds of county workers who come in contact each day with vulnerable populations and are “doing a really good job.”

“The gathering should not have happened,” added Manu Koenig, the incoming District 1 supervisor who won election in November. “I’m awaiting more information about this incident including the results of the contact tracing and inmate testing.”

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office announced the outbreak Monday after several officers had felt sick at work and then later tested positive. Officials are working to test all incarcerated people, jail staff and officers.

The role the party might have played in the outbreak wasn’t known until Tuesday night, when Lookout Santa Cruz revealed the event had occurred.

After that report, health and law enforcement officials on Wednesday morning acknowledged their inquiry into a social gathering involving correctional officers. The jail outbreak has forced 17 correctional officers — 10 who tested positive and seven who were exposed to them — off the job. That amounts to 15 percent of correctional officers countywide.

“The only thing I know is there was a large gathering outside of work that some correctional officers participated in,” said Corinne Hyland, the county Health Services Agency’s spokeswoman. That gathering, she said, is potentially linked to the outbreak. An investigation remains ongoing.

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Hyland said she was unaware of how many people attended. Attendees, she said, have tested both positive and negative.

Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Ashley Keehn acknowledged the county health department is “doing contact tracing to determine if” the gathering “could have played a role” in the outbreak. “Right now our focus is on getting everyone back to good health and then will look into an internal review,” she wrote in an early-morning text message.

The event took place early last week, but the sheriff’s office didn’t learn of it until officers started showing COVID-19 symptoms late in the week, Keehn later told Lookout. She didn’t respond to questions about which sheriff’s office employees attended the event, where it occurred, or how many people attended.

According to Keehn, most positive cases in the outbreak have been among correctional officers who work night shifts, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

So far, no COVID-19 infections had been reported among other jail staff members, or among the 324 people incarcerated in county facilities, according to the sheriff’s department. Keehn said all inmates had been tested, and that all staff tests would be complete by Wednesday evening.

Chief Deputy Paul Ramos, the official who oversees the jail facilities, referred an interview request to Keehn. Sheriff Hart has not returned a request for comment.

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Correctional Officer Association, which represents officers in contract talks and in disciplinary proceedings, could not be reached for comment.

Aaron Littman, a Binder Clinical Teaching Fellow at UCLA School of Law and one of two people spearheading the university’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, said jails and prisons are “really effective incubators for this virus.”

Correctional officers falling ill can impact a facility’s staffing level, Littman added, “which impacts the safety of incarcerated people in the facilities, their ability to access medical care and all sorts of things.”

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.

Employees who test positive are required to stay home for at least 14 days under sheriff’s office protocols. 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.

Absences will be filled by the county’s remaining correctional officers or by sheriff’s deputies “who have jail experience,” Keehn said. City of Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills said Sheriff Hart had given him a “heads-up” that processing inmates at county jail facilities could be delayed by staffing issues and COVID-19 limitations.

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.

Besides elected officials, business leaders were outraged that the party occurred.

“If true, for the outbreak among correctional officers to be the result of a party is incredibly disappointing and a failure of leadership from the sheriff,” Kris Reyes, who chairs the county’s Economic Recovery Council, said in an email.

A few weeks ago, Reyes added, the county was in the much more lenient orange tier and the path to recovery appeared much brighter. “Now we are back to the worst days of the pandemic and selfish activities like parties are contributing to people getting sick, businesses closing and workers losing jobs,” said Reyes, director of strategic development and external affairs for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. “We must do better.”

Contributing: Wallace Baine