More than six percent of Californians have now contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began, but in one San Joaquin Valley county, the case rate is almost twice as high.
According to county and state data, 18,110 people in Kings County have contracted COVID-19 since March, a total that’s equivalent to more than 11 percent of residents, or one in nine. Only in two California counties, Lassen and Imperial, has COVID-19 infected a higher share of residents.
One reason for Kings County’s high cumulative total is massive outbreaks in two of the county’s state-run prisons: Avenal State Prison and the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran, which together account for more than 7,000 cases among incarcerated and staff. According to the New York Times, they’re the two largest outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons in the entire country.
“That is something that is startling to think, that that many individuals in a very close proximity are all testing positive,” says Jeff Garner, executive director of the non-profit Kings Community Action Organization. “It’s a huge concern. The prisons are a huge employer in our county. Whether it’s employees or clients, it’s kind of like those six degrees of separation.”
Since October, however, rising infections in the wider community have outpaced the county’s prison outbreaks.
Garner has witnessed this firsthand. Through a program known as Kings Cares, his organization provides food and financial support for essential workers needing to quarantine after testing positive. He says applications to the program skyrocketed after Thanksgiving. “All of a sudden we went from serving maybe eight to 10 families at one time to serving 90 families,” he said.
Likewise, Garner says demand for the county food bank in Hanford has tripled since before the pandemic.
As for why community spread has been so high, Kings County health officials have not responded to multiple requests for comment.