REGIONAL — As anti-incarceration advocates slammed the Alameda County Sheriff's Office for a recent spike of COVID-19 cases among inmates and staff inside the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, jail officials said Monday that quarantining and other procedures have slowed the spread.
Department officials reported on Dec. 30 that 12 staff members and 109 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus, the second highest number since July, when 110 inmates contracting the illness. In the days that followed, the numbers dropped to 76 on Jan. 6 and 12 on Sunday.
The number of affected staff members fell to five.
"This is the second outbreak we've had of the pandemic," said Sgt. Ray Kelly, a department spokesman. "We've managed to fight back against the outbreak, and we've lowered the cases to 12."
Kelly said jail authorities believe the efforts kept the numbers to a low percentage of the more than 2,100 inmates behind bars.
That number of inmates is a significant increase from the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns in March, when Alameda County sheriff's officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys worked to decrease the jail population from a high of 2,600 to 1,700 by offering zero bail for lesser offenses, encouraging judges to release defendants awaiting trial, and shortening sentences.
Crime, however, is increasing in Alameda County cities, growing the number of people behind bars, Kelly said.
"Once we hit 1,700, the numbers have been on a steady incline," Kelly said. "That's despite numerous efforts to keep people out of jail."
During a news conference on Monday, members of Decarcerate Alameda County, a coalition of groups working to reduce the Santa Rita Jail population and reduce funds for policing and incarceration, said the county must stop placing people in the facility.
Amber Akemi Piatt, director of the Health Instead of Punishment Program at Human Impact Partners, said the outbreak at Santa Rita began Dec. 23. Overnight, she stated that positive COVID-19 cases increased from five to 53.
"Unfortunately, we have seen that jails, prisons and ICE detention centers are hot spots for COVID-19 all across the country," she said.
In March, about 50 community and faith groups demanded the county stop jailing more people, reduce the number of inmates at Santa Rita, and care for those incarcerated.
Piatt stated that COVID-19 still rarely hovers over 15% of the jail population, which has once again increased in size.
"We saw many releases in the weeks following the state of emergency declaration, but we are unfortunately seeing jail levels back at pre-pandemic levels," Piatt said.
Sheila Dunlap, who said she has a sister jailed at Santa Rita, complained that inmates are not given cleaning supplies and that they are housed with new inmates who come "directly off the street."
Last week, Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, who has advocated for increased releases of inmates since the pandemic began to prevent the virus' spread, tweeted Jan. 6 that "the new outbreak in jail led the (District Attorney's) office to release 28 out of 2,144 people early," or 1.3% of the jail population.
"We appreciate the gesture, but it is a drop in the bucket. Much more needs to be done," Woods wrote, adding "#FreeThemAllForPublicHealth."
Kelly said the most likely source for the December outbreak came from staff and contractors coming into the facility.
According to the department, Santa Rita Jail implemented "robust additional cleaning, sanitation and medical screening procedures" last March to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in the jail.
Anyone — including staff, law enforcement and contractors — are medically screened before they can enter the facility. Inmates meeting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria are tested, and those with symptoms are quarantined. High-risk inmates, including those 65 and older and with comorbidities, are kept in separate jail pods.
In the latest statistics, 10 of the inmates who tested positive showed no symptoms of the virus.
To date in the Santa Rita Jail, no inmates have died from COVID-19. Authorities have administered 6,909 tests among inmates. Of those, 6,484 were negative, 423 tested positive and two tests are pending.
Also, according to department numbers:
261 former positive inmates have completely recovered and remain in custody;
96 formerly positive inmates have recovered and are no longer in jail;
54 inmates who tested positive were released from custody;
Two inmates previously required hospitalization, but none currently.
Among staff and contract workers, 93 have tested positive for COVID-19, and 88 have recovered.
"We've been down this road before," Kelly said. "We were not naive enough to think we would not get some outbreaks."
Kelly further stated that rapid testing is the best solution to keep the virus from spreading until staff and inmates can be vaccinated.