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Why A Massive COVID-19 Outbreak At Fresno County's Jail Flew Under The Radar

Monica Lam
More than 1,100 people in Fresno County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began - a tally that surpasses those at all but two state prisons.

More than 1,100 people at the Fresno County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The running tally of infections at the county-run complex actually surpasses those at all but two state prisons in California. But unlike the state’s careful tracking and reporting of cases at prisons and nursing homes, data on COVID-19 infections in county jails have not been consistently collected or made readily available to the public.

Although the hundreds of thousands of people who pass through jails in California each year could be a vector for spreading the virus, each of the state’s 58 counties run their facilities independently, with varying approaches to tracking or reporting COVID-19 infections among inmates and staff.

Advocates say the lack of transparency around the COVID-19 outbreak in Fresno and other county-run jails obscures a serious public health risk not only for inmates and staff but also for the people in their communities.

Fresno County Jail Outbreak

The outbreak at the Fresno County Jail was discovered in mid-June, not by the sheriff’s office, but by state prison officials who were screening a group of inmates being transferred to Wasco State Prison near Bakersfield and found 13 who tested positive.

After that, Fresno County jail officials began widespread testing of inmates in two of the downtown Fresno jail’s three buildings, and the case count there exploded.

Since June, at least 1,115 inmates and 76 employees have tested positive, according to an Aug. 25 email from Fresno County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Tony Botti. Of those, 21 inmates were at one time hospitalized. The agency has reported no deaths.

We have an extreme vacuum of information in the county jail system. The public needs to know about the risks jails are exposing members of their community to so they can protect themselves and those members. - Kathleen Guneratne, senior staff attorney, ACLU of Northern California

As of Aug. 25, 111 inmates were in quarantine, down from a peak of 901 earlier in the summer. However, the department has been unable to say how many of those were considered active cases at any given time.

“I don’t have a breakdown of how many are still … potentially infectious. We just lump them all together in quarantine and release them … once they clear their 13-day period,” Botti wrote in an earlier email.

Although the number of potentially contagious inmates has dropped precipitously since the outbreak’s peak, cumulative case counts are a consistent measure of the scale of outbreaks among facilities and agencies. They also represent the total number of people associated with a particular outbreak who could become a vector for transmitting the virus.

How Fresno Compares

The New York Times now ranks the outbreak in Fresno as the12th largest cluster of cases — including both inmates and staff —at a single facility in the country, but it’s not clear how other jails in California rank when not all counties are consistently reporting this information to public health officials.

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) collects information on jails from county health officials, but won’t publish it because it is often “incomplete,” according to an Aug. 3 email from a spokesperson, who attributed the problem to the high volume of cases and inadequate resources for counties to report them.

“CDPH shares a wide variety of data about COVID-19 with the public to help general understanding about how the virus is impacting our communities,” the spokesperson wrote. “In considering which data to make available … CDPH considers the reliability and completeness of available data.”

Apparently, jail data has not made the cut.

One agency that does make COVID-19 data readily available is theCalifornia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees the state’s prison system.

Currently the largest outbreak is at San Quentin State Prison, where more than 2,200 inmates have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began, according to the agency's website. The next largest outbreak is rapidly expanding at Avenal State Prison, where more than 1,700 inmates were found to have COVID-19 —175 of whom were diagnosed in just the last two weeks.

If the Fresno County Jail were a prison, its cumulative or total number of cases during the pandemic among inmates would rank it the third largest outbreak — larger than 33 of California’s prisons.

‘Substantial Vectors’ of COVID-19

Unlike prisons, where inmates can be housed for decades as they serve out their sentences, jails typically hold people convicted of lesser crimes for a few months on average. Many people in jails are still awaiting trial and have yet to be convicted. The frequent turnover, combined with close quarters, can make jails hotbeds for the virus.

Lucia Tian, Chief Analytics Officer of the American Civil Liberties Union, was part of a data team that put together a report in April warning that outbreaks in jails could lead totens to hundreds of thousands more deaths than forecasters had predicted early on in the pandemic.

“Jails are a really substantial vector for the spread of COVID-19,” Tian said, referring to jails as the “revolving doors of incarceration.”

In 2016, nearly 800,000 people were booked into California jails, according to ananalysis by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Advocates say the lack of information on COVID-19 at county jails could compromise safety both inside and outside of the facilities.

“It’s a public health issue all the way around,” said Elizabeth Diaz, Fresno County’s Public Defender. “Whether someone is incarcerated or is not, it affects the community as a whole.”

Diaz said she is concerned not only about the safety of inmates, but also of her staff — the public defenders who meet their clients in the jail and in court.

Kathleen Guneratne, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said data on COVID-19 in jails is critical to ensuring an adequate public health response.

“We have an extreme vacuum of information in the county jail system,” Guneratne said. “The public needs to know about the risks jails are exposing members of their community to so they can protect themselves and those members.”

Some Jails Providing Data

Despite the lack of centralized data, some jail systems have reported large outbreaks on their websites.

Some jails have the ability to isolate inmates and quarantine them before they're put into the general population. We don't have that ability. - Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims

As of Aug. 25, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Departmentreported 3,133 COVID-19 infections among inmates and 826 among staff; the Orange County Sheriff’s Departmentconfirmed in excess of 529 cases among the incarcerated, and 166 positive tests among employees; and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Officereported that 240 inmates and 53 employees tested positive.

Corresponding by email on Aug. 25, Santa Clara County officials stated that 173 people incarcerated in the jails and 39 employees had tested positive for the virus.

The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, which does not make COVID-19 data available on its website, initially sent out press releases about the quarantine and outbreak but later stopped.

“It stirs up hysteria when things become so data driven,” spokesman Botti wrote in a July 21 email to media outlets. "Once we reach the point of where our mass quarantine has ended, we will make an announcement."

Public Defender Diaz said the Sheriff’s Office provides her office with information about COVID-19 cases at Fresno's Jail when prompted.

“We ask the question and we get the answers. It’s not necessarily forthcoming,” she said.

In response to questions about transparency, Botti said, “I don’t agree that we have not been transparent with our COVID situation in the jail. We have regularly released numbers upon request to media members. We also proactively announced when we went into a large quarantine at the North Annex Jail due to a dozen inmates testing positive after a transfer to Wasco State Prison. We continued to provide regular updates of quarantine numbers.”

Botti said his office does not intend to publish COVID-19 numbers on its website, but that it will provide new jail-related numbers, on a weekly basis, upon request by media members.

Advocates Call for State Oversight

After months of pressure from advocacy groups, California’s Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) launcheda dashboard on July 31 of COVID-19 data in local detention facilities.

“We understand that the community has a great interest in this information,” said Linda Penner, who chairs the oversight board. “You'll be able to look at a county and, you know, with the click of a mouse, you'll be able to look at what happened last week and the week before.”

But advocates say it does not illustrate the full scope of jail outbreaks in the state. The data does not include infections that occurred during the first four months of the pandemic, making it impossible to see the full size of each facility’s outbreak.

Asking officials to provide virus data stretching back months “was a big lift for the counties when they are dealing with so many challenges related to the COVID-19 response,” wrote BSCC Director of Communications Tracie Cone in an Aug. 3 email. “Getting the cumulative numbers to date raised some concerns, specifically about accuracy.”

But without the total counts, advocates say, the dashboard is inadequate. Brian Goldstein, Director of Policy with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice says it’s the wrong decision.

“Californians should be outraged,” Goldstein said. “The Board of State and Community Corrections remains willfully ignorant of conditions within jails and juvenile facilities.”

The ACLU’s Guneratne agreed. “It does not give us a very full picture of what is happening at the county levels to address the risk of contagion,” she said.

A month after the dashboard’s launch, three counties — Amador, Sacramento, and Tehama — have yet to contribute to it.

Fresno County Ramps Up Testing

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said her department’s response to the outbreak has been limited by space and the number of individual cells available for isolating inmates.

“Some jails have the ability to isolate inmates and quarantine them before they’re put into the general population. We don’t have that ability,” Mims said.

Fresno County’s jail has employed a system that quarantines groups of inmates together by color code — yellow for those with symptoms, orange for those known to have been exposed and red for those who tested positive — and then allows people to join the general population after 10 days of quarantine and three days of no symptoms.

Advocates argue that containing the virus should also involve strategies for reducing jail populations like releasing pretrial offenders who pose no significant risk of harm to others or of fleeing and eliminating outstanding warrants for offenses like failing to appear in court.

According to the ACLU report on jails and COVID-19, Fresno County’s jail system at the beginning of the pandemic was the country’s 20th largest. Since March, however, Mims said the jail population had dropped from roughly 3,000 to 2,100 inmates, thanks largely to an emergency order from the state’s Judicial Council settingbail at $0 for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies that was issued statewide in April and renewed locally in June.

The reduction in the incarcerated population made the jail’s color-coded quarantine system easier to carry out, Mims said, but she warned that the policy could backfire when it comes to public safety.

“We’ve had plenty of those offenders re-offend, and they came back to the jail after being arrested again,” she said. “So it’s a two-sided coin.”

The sheriff’s office has committed to testing all inmates for the disease weekly, as well as testing all new arrivals upon intake, according to Botti. All employees, 20 of whom were isolating at home as of last week, can also be tested weekly on a voluntary basis.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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