Medical staff working in Calif. jails worried about spread of COVID-19

San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore has introduced a series of procedures to confront the novel coronavirus, including regular cleaning and disinfecting of the jails


By Jeff McDonald and Kelly Davis
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Medical experts working in San Diego County jails are growing increasingly worried about the danger posed by the coronavirus because officials have tested only a few dozen people and more inmates are showing signs of infection, multiple sources tell The San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Sheriff's Department has so far confirmed that one nurse tested positive for the virus -- an announcement made late Thursday after the Union-Tribune requested details about jail infection rates and after the nurse posted a video on her Facebook page outlining her condition.

Marysol Chacon (top right) and other inmates must deal with crowding at the Las Colinas jail. (Photo/Laura Embry of the Union-Tribune via TNS)
Marysol Chacon (top right) and other inmates must deal with crowding at the Las Colinas jail. (Photo/Laura Embry of the Union-Tribune via TNS)

"A nurse who works at the Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility in Santee tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, March 25th," the department said in a statement. "The nurse has been isolated at home since March 22nd after feeling ill."

Department officials said none of the inmates who had been in recent contact with the nurse had been placed in isolation, a policy they attributed to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The statement also said two of the nurse's coworkers have been tested for the virus but those results are not yet available. Nine other employees had been identified as having a low-risk exposure as a result of contact with the nurse, who was not identified. They are being monitored by the jail's medical staff.

"Out of an abundance of caution, these employees were told to self-quarantine at home," the department said.

Another nurse at Las Colinas complained to her boss earlier this week that she was exposed to the COVID-19 virus but a captain told her to remain at work anyway, a jail source said. Department spokesman Lt. Ricardo Lopez did not respond to questions about that assertion.

The sheriff's statement also said no inmates have tested positive for the virus.

A health care provider said he was told by employees at the San Diego Central Jail that an inmate had tested positive for the virus but department officials have not discussed that result with employees or the public. County public health officials also could not immediately confirm that.

"The word is out but no formal announcement," the source said in a text message. "Only about the nurse at LC (Las Colinas)."

The source said all jail workers are now being required to wear masks.

The Sheriff's Department's statement said jail commanders have quarantined 26 inmates who showed signs of illness ; 33 inmates have been tested and none of those tests have come back positive, although eight results are outstanding.

Jails and prisons have been of particular concern to public health officials across the country because inmates and guards tend to congregate in close quarters and people are constantly coming and going from the facilities.

When initially asked about how many inmates have been tested for the virus, the Sheriff's Department did not answer. Instead the department referenced a Wednesday press release from the county Health and Human Services Agency saying testing is primarily for "people at higher risk of complications."

But at a Friday afternoon media briefing, county Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten said jails should be testing all inmates who are showing symptoms — not just those at higher risk of health complications — "because we don't want to have a widespread outbreak in jails."

A source familiar with practices inside Las Colinas — and who has been in touch with medical staff — said lack of testing could be putting staff and other inmates at risk.

"Some inmates who are in isolation present symptoms, and by all accounts are positive, but are never tested because they resolve within 14 days," the source said.

The county on Friday announced its fourth, fifth and sixth coronavirus-related deaths, while overall infections surpassed 340 in the past several weeks. In the United States, more than 100,000 people have been sickened and 1,300-plus have died.

The Las Colinas jail nurse, whose name is being withheld by the Union-Tribune, said in the video posted on social media that she is isolating herself at home and expects to recover fully.

"I want to assure everybody that I am OK and if I've been around you and you don't have any symptoms, you're probably OK too," she said. "So, you know I love you guys. Don't freak out."

Las Colinas employees said privately they thought the nurse was exposed to the virus by an inmate. In her post, the woman does not speculate on how she contracted the virus but implies she acquired it by doing her job.

"I'm happy I made the right decision," she said. "I left work."

A county official said he doesn't know if there are more cases of COVID inside the jails because there is a lag between the time cases are reported to the public health team and when they are confirmed and added to the official count.

If there are cases "I would expect to see that show up" in the coming days, county spokesman Michael Workman said about the jail infections disclosed to the Union-Tribune. "We just don't know now to verify it. It's probably a little early for us to be able to confirm that."

Corrections advocates across the country have called for swift release of nonviolent offenders and those awaiting trial, to protect against spreading the virus.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation last week announced that one Los Angeles County inmate tested positive for COVID-19 out of 167 tests. Twelve employees also have confirmed diagnoses, according to a department website that tracks infections daily.

Gov. Gavin Newsom last week directed all 58 county sheriffs to stop sending newly convicted people to state prisons for 30 days to help stop further exposures.

San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore has introduced a series of procedures to confront the virus, including regular cleaning and disinfecting of the jails, suspending jail visits, enhanced screening during the booking process and initiating early releases for eligible inmates.

In recent days, the jail population has been reduced by almost 15 percent, although Gore has resisted calls from the ACLU and other advocates for the wholesale release of elderly and vulnerable inmates.

Jail inmate William DePlachett said some guards are denying there is a problem.

Jail staff "say 'there isn't coronavirus here' but won't test so I'm unsure how they can speculate," he wrote in a letter to his father last week.

DePlachett, who is scheduled to be released from the East Mesa Detention Facility April 6, is hoping to be let out earlier because of the ongoing threat. He asked his father to send his letter to the Union-Tribune.

The Las Colinas nurse who acquired the virus also discussed the difficulty of receiving a test, even though public health officials say testing is the clearest way to measure the extent of any contagion.

"I was lucky enough to be tested because being tested is very hard," she said in her video post. "If you don't meet criteria they won't test you, so the truth is a lot of us might have it and we don't even know."

Researchers at UC San Francisco said on Friday that checking for COVID-19 infections in jails and prisons is critical to protecting the health of inmates and staff.

"As state and local public health systems increase capacity for testing in communities, it remains uncertain whether jurisdictions are accounting for the urgent need for robust COVID-19 screening and testing in their correctional facilities," they said.

Other experts also recommend detention facilities take any complaint of symptoms seriously.

In a webinar organized by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement last week, correctional health care experts emphasized the risk COVID-19 poses to the nation's thousands of jails and prisons.

One of the experts, Dr. Homer Venters, was hired by San Diego County to conduct a "best practices" review of the jail system following an investigation last year by the Union-Tribune into the high rate of inmate deaths.

Venters, the former chief medical officer at New York City Correctional Health Services, described COVID-19 as a "looming disaster" for detention facilities.

"In those places, we've put lots of people who fit the risk criteria we've been hearing about for serious illness and death," said Venters, now president of the Community Oriented Correctional Health Services nonprofit.

In a guide she put together for county sheriffs, corrections oversight expert Michele Deitch advised that jails should "ensure free testing is readily available for any inmate or staff member who shows symptoms or fears they may have been exposed."

She said law enforcement agencies should be as transparent as possible.

"Conduct daily media briefings about new developments in the jail and report key indicators on a daily basis," Deitch advised.

The Sheriff's Department has issued several public notices describing its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But until late last week, officials declined to specify how many guards, medical staff or inmates had been tested or what results the tests showed.

In a statement last Wednesday, Lopez said the Sheriff's Department will not release data about the virus.

"The Sheriff's Department is not going to report out daily numbers of inmates in quarantine or how many have been tested," he said by email. "Positive test results of COVID-19 are being reported by county Public Health."

On Friday, the Sheriff's Department began releasing daily updates on tests and results from inside the jails.

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©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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