Rising Valley Cases, Outbreak At Avenal State Prison: COVID-19 Update For June 15-19

Jun 19, 2020

Although businesses are reopening, reports of new cases of COVID-19 are still on the rise throughout the San Joaquin Valley. You can find up-to-date information for your county here. Below is an update for the week of June 15-19, 2020.

The outlook

  • As of June 18: 250 deaths out of 12,489 positive cases.
  • As of a week earlier, on June 11: 217 deaths out of 10,304 positive cases.
  • New cases were reported this week in every county in the FM89 coverage area, and all except for Mariposa County also reported new COVID-19-related fatalities. In many of these counties, new case reports are accelerating, not slowing down.
  • This rise in cases cannot simply be explained by an increase in testing, because local hospitalizations and ICU admissions are also on the rise. 
  • Health officials hammer home the most effective precautions to keep from contracting and spreading the virus: outside the home, maintain six feet of social distancing wherever possible, and wear face coverings.

 

Highlights from throughout the FM89 coverage area:

  • Fresno County: Reported its highest daily new case count—158 in 24 hours—on June 18. Health officials are asking those who have recovered from the disease to donate blood and plasma.
  • Kern County: State health officials added the county to a list for closer monitoring, primarily because of rising cases at nursing homes and correctional facilities there. The list already contained Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties.
  • Kings County: Cases reported in correctional facilities (Avenal State Prison; California State Prison, Corcoran; and California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Corcoran) still outpace those in the community (more details on Avenal below).
  • Madera County: Numbers are quite low, but new case reports are increasing.
  • Mariposa County: Reported one new case this week, and no further hospitalizations or fatalities.
  • Merced County: Outbreak at an almond processing facility. Eight cases there.
  • Tulare County: Has temporarily closed two TulareWorks offices in Visalia and Dinuba due to one employee in each office testing positive for the virus.

   

Spotlight on Avenal State Prison (ASP) - How state prison officials are responding:

As of June 19: the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has reported 923 cases among ASP’s incarcerated population, 64 among employees, and 0 fatalities. This is the second largest outbreak among the state’s correctional facilities. ASP’s first positive case was reported in a staff member on May 15. On May 18, the first positive case was reported in an incarcerated man.

 

Representatives of CDCR declined an interview request, but did provide information by email. Some of its efforts to respond to the virus:

  • Daily temperature checks for staff.
  • Mandatory social distancing where possible and PPE for staff and the incarcerated population.
  • Mandatory COVID-19 testing for staff, which began in late May and has reportedly been completed.
  • In its email, CDCR says it’s doing “mass testing of inmates,” though the agency wouldn’t clarify if all are being systematically tested or if any are being tested more than once. As of June 19, Avenal has conducted 3,777 tests among the incarcerated – the most of any state correctional institution, but still short of the current population of 4,095 men.
  • Celled housing for incarcerated men who test positive, as well as “a gym for additional housing where inmates who test negative can be housed in physically-distanced environments,” CDCR’s email reads. “The institution has also designated housing facilities for COVID 19-positive inmates who are asymptomatic as well as separate designated housing units for those who are symptomatic, but do not require a higher level of care.”
  • Early parole hearings for some with fewer than 60 days remaining in their sentence.

 

However, some argue CDCR isn't doing enough to contain the disease's spread:

On June 6, dozens of protesters gathered outside of ASP to argue for increased protection for the incarcerated population holding signs reading “Cake Not Cages” and “COVID19+Prison=Death.” The rally was organized by the advocacy group Families United to End Life Without Parole, known as FUEL.

“Our men and women inside are suffering with this disease that definitely could have been prevented,” says FUEL organizer Sutina Green. “CDCR has done a very messy job of trying to keep the spread from happening.” Green and another FUEL organizer, both in contact with men incarcerated at ASP and other facilities, claim that:

  • COVID-19 testing within prison walls, for both staff and the incarcerated, is not happening systematically and is inadequate to understand and contain the outbreak.
  • ASP officials aren’t adequately enforcing PPE requirements. “Staff are not wearing masks, and that’s being reported by the men and women inside,” says Green. In addition, she says, “There was reports of nurses not changing gloves after temperature check.”
  • CDCR’s social distancing of incarcerated is inadequate, particularly in dorms containing eight beds, where CDCR has prioritized social distancing. Michelle Tran, a FUEL organizer whose husband has been incarcerated at ASP for four years, says it’s just not possible. “When you think of beds stacked on top of beds, stacked on top of beds, how could you ever possibly think that there’s going to be social distancing?” she asks. “It would be like going to summer camp as a kid.”
  • A representative of CDCR did not address questions about these specific claims.

 

Earlier this week, Green penned a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom on behalf of FUEL with a list of demands to slow the spread of COVID-19, including expediting parole hearings for elderly and some other incarcerated people; fast-tracking some commutations; imposing fines on staff not following PPE protocols; and increasing COVID-19 testing.

 

Kings County health officials concerned, but have no jurisdiction over the prison:

In late May, the Kings County Department of Public Health issued six orders to ASP Warden Rosemary Ndoh, requiring, among other things, that the prison conduct multiple rounds of testing for all staff and incarcerated people, institute policies for employees awaiting test results, and disclose all of its employees’ names and addresses to the county.

 

In a response letter dated June 9, CDCR General Counsel Jennifer Neill wrote that CDCR reports to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), not to county health departments. “While local health officers are able to issue orders to other governmental entities to control the spread of communicable disease, this is limited to entities within the local health officer’s jurisdiction,” Neill wrote. “The State is not an entity under local health officers’ jurisdictions, and thus local health officer orders are not valid against the State.”

 

“The Kings County Department of Public Health has moved into a supportive role,” says department director Ed Hill. One of his primary concerns is the strain that cases among the incarcerated could place on the local healthcare system should they become too ill for CDCR facilities. “Once they reach a certain acuity level, they do have to transfer or have those patients sent to hospitals to be cared for,” he says.

 

Community-spread cases of the disease related to prison staff have been reported locally and in neighboring Fresno County. “We just ask [staff] to be mindful and know that they’re in an endemic area with wide transmission of the virus and that they need to be careful in how they choose to move throughout the community,” Hill says.

 

Despite the state agency’s refusal to comply with county orders, Hill says his department is assisting CDCR wherever possible. He says the county has so far supplied CDCR with 7,000 COVID-19 tests, which were used at facilities in Avenal and Corcoran, and has provided nursing and other healthcare staff when needed.