Rural Calif. prison reports major COVID-19 outbreak

Three inmates who were moved from San Quentin to rural Lassen County have tested positive and likely sparked an outbreak that's left county leaders fuming

By Jason Pohl
The Sacramento Bee

LASSEN COUNTY, Calif. — Three prison inmates who were moved from San Quentin to rural Lassen County earlier this month have tested positive for COVID-19 and likely sparked an outbreak that’s left county leaders fuming as case counts soar and reopening plans hang in jeopardy, local officials said.

As of Friday morning, at least 159 inmates at California Correctional Center in Susanville have tested positive for the disease in the past 14 days, according to the state’s online testing dashboard. It’s the first outbreak of its type in Susanville, the county’s largest city where prisons are a major employer.

The outbreak happened after the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation transferred three inmates from San Quentin earlier this month, said Richard Egan, Lassen County’s administrative officer.

By Thursday this week, 76 inmates tested positive. The number doubled by Friday morning.

The transfers initially tested negative for COVID-19 and were housed with other inmates, Egan said. It was unclear whether people from any other facility had also been transferred into Susanville.

But local officials said the source of the recent outbreak must be the San Quentin transfers, rather than a staff member coming into the prison for work, since the county has an extremely low infection rate.

San Quentin this month has rocketed to the top of a list of state prison outbreaks after inmates were transferred from another infected facility. At least 539 people in custody have contracted the disease. The state on Monday issued a two-week freeze on most inmate transfers.

Originally built in 1963, California Correctional Center has four facilities and 18 conservation camps. It houses more than 3,000 minimum and medium-security inmates and serves as a gateway for training and placement into California’s prison wildfire program.

“Frankly, we were disappointed that the institutions made the decision to continue to transfer inmates in and out of CCC,” Egan said in an interview Friday. “It seems like that concern was warranted.”

The outbreak raises the possibility that staff members could get infected and spread the disease to the community. Egan said the county has struggled to get information from the state about the outbreak in their prison. The health officer does not have jurisdiction over the prison and was not consulted about the transfer, Egan said.

CDCR declined to address the county’s concerns about infected San Quentin inmates bringing COVID-19 into the facility. Spokeswoman Dana Simas said in a statement the department was monitoring the situation and that prison-wide testing finished this week, meaning additional positive cases could be expected.

California’s prison medical system was placed under federal receivership in 2006, after a federal court ruled that conditions for inmates violated their constitutional rights. The receiver is still in place.

“Additionally, we are working closely with the court-appointed Federal Receiver on inmate transfers, as well as public health agencies and stakeholders for the safety and security of our inmates, staff and communities,” she said.

Not counting the prison outbreak, Lassen County has just three other COVD-19 positive residents. It has reported only 12 infections since the pandemic began. No deaths have been reported.

David Teeter, chair of the Lassen County Board of Supervisors, on Thursday evening said he was “mad as hell at the State of California” for bringing an outbreak to his county. Now, residents in his county are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, despite months of work to keep the virus at bay.

“We had managed to contact trace, we had managed to do what we were supposed to do,” Teeter said. “And now thanks to the State of California, we’ve got an outbreak.”

“The whole thing has left me agast,” he added.

Tiny number of cases among 30,000 residents

Teeter was also angry about a plan to turn the prison into a “statewide hub” for COVID-19-positive inmates who were working in California’s network of fire camps. Effective immediately, the state wrote in a Wednesday memo, people requiring medical treatment will be transported to CCC for treatment and housing,” according to the all-staff memo.

Lassen County has prided itself on its COVID-19 response. It was among the first to win state approval to reopen in May. Then, increased testing around Memorial Day showed a handful of cases in the county and officials tapped the brakes on their reopening plan.

Although the four cases represented a small proportion of a county with 30,000 full-time residents, it was the first time the coronavirus was confirmed to have been spreading.

Backtracking on its reopening plan made it the first county in the state to do so. Some stores had been open one day before the county’s public health office told businesses to go back a step in the reopening process amid as officials responded to the “serious problem.”

It was short-lived. That same week, things moved forward again as health officials said they came to understand the extent of the spread. Gov. Gavin Newsom has praised the county’s efforts in recent days and said local officials’ adherence to the start-and-stop nature of the pandemic should serve as a model for other counties.

It’s unclear if the public health officer will again call for a suspension in the county’s reopening.

The county is already trying to decide the fate of the county fair, scheduled for July. Officials had hoped parts of it, like the livestock auction and other 4-H events, could go on with modifications.

But surging cases elsewhere in the state, an outbreak in the prison where hundreds of people enter and exit every day, and other COVID-19 challenges prompted an advisory board this week to call for the auction to be moved online and the rest to be canceled altogether.

The board of supervisors will decide next week.

Teeter said this week’s reality raises the prospect of renewed restrictions, especially if area health care resources in the rural community begin to feel the strain.

That’ll be difficult in the deeply conservative county, said Teeter, a Democrat. Mask-wearing has been the exception, he said, not the norm and residents’ patience has worn thin about decisions made in Sacramento.

“I don’t know what a pull-back will look like,” Teeter said. “That one pull-back we did was effective, but under protest.”


©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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