Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

Health officials overseeing medical care in the Santa Clara County jail system say a record surge in COVID-19 cases this month — primarily at the Elmwood men’s jail in Milpitas — got so bad that they couldn’t adequately quarantine people because they literally ran out of space.

To quell the infection spike, they are recommending that a decrease in the jail population of nearly 20%, to get it under 2,000 people — an idea that has been met with firm resistance from the sheriff’s office, which runs the county jails.

Jails throughout the Bay Area have struggled to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leading to protests and litigation. Notably, Santa Rita Jail in Dublin has recorded hundreds of cases since 2020, despite intake quarantines and testing policies. Like Santa Clara County jails, Santa Rita has also been subjected to lawsuits alleging inadequate medical and mental healthcare, though the jail is reporting zero positive cases. In August, an outbreak in the Contra Costa County jail system that topped 100.

In Santa Clara County, the jail system has recorded 202 in-custody infections since the beginning of November, amounting to more than a quarter of all the South Bay jail infections recorded since the start of the pandemic. In response to the surge, quarantine periods were reduced from 14 days to 10 days. Custody health officials wrote in a memo last week that infected people in jail custody had to be moved around more frequently because of the space problems, increasing exposure risks.

“There is not cell space to move (inmates) out of dormitory housing, and so they remain in their dormitory housing and cannot be quarantined,” reads the memo, obtained by this news organization. “If they cannot be be quarantined they may spread COVID-19 to each other over the coming days and weeks.”

Still, the proposed population decrease would be a tall order, since the jail census as of Monday morning was 2,464 people, with 1,782 being held in Elmwood. That marks a gradual resurgence in the jail population since law-enforcement officials, prosecutors and public defenders, negotiated amnesty and early-release measures to bring the population down from 3,200 to 2,100 in the first six months of the pandemic.

Over the past two weeks, similar but more modest efforts have led to a decrease of about 100 people. There are no active talks about additional releases.

A key discussion at Monday’s meeting revolved around who has the authority to effect the population decrease recommended by health officials. Sheriff Laurie Smith said the courts, district attorney’s office and public defender’s office have to spearhead such releases, and blamed felony case resolution rates, her own agency’s understaffing and the razing of an old jail facility for hamstringing her office.

Smith said more jail releases pose a pronounced public-safety risk because the releases that already happened, combined with higher thresholds for jailing someone, increase the chances that someone with a violent history will be let out.

“What I don’t recommend is additional release,” she said, adding that any releases that do happen need to be accompanied by robust monitoring.

Assistant Public Defender Charlie Hendrickson objected to Smith’s characterization, arguing that the sheriff in fact has authority to approve emergency releases and that scores of people in custody can be safely released. He noted that most people serving out sentences in county jail have six months or less in custody for low-level crimes.

“Can we fashion other dispositions other than straight time in jail that protect the community but also keep people out of jail?” he asked.

As of Monday, seven people who contracted COVID-19 during the current jail surge had to be hospitalized, at least four of them in intensive care, according to officials. On Nov. 16, the sheriff’s jail-infection online dashboard tallied 159 active infections, the highest number since officials began tracking cases in the spring of 2020.

The sharp increase in jail infections prompted a special meeting Monday of the county Community Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring committee.

“I want to know what they’re doing to save these people’s lives,” committee Chair Walter Wilson said in an interview. “The place is like a petri dish, and it’s incumbent on all of us to have preventative measures. That’s what I want to come out of today’s meeting. We have an obligation to protect everyone’s life in the system.”

One of the main differences between this and previous surges is the availability of vaccines. Less than half of people who were infected during the current surge were vaccinated. Smith said 59% of the jail population is fully or partially vaccinated, and that 93% of jail staff is vaccinated.

Both Smith and Dr. Eureka Daye, director of the county custody health division, said the suspected origin of the surge lay with a person who was infectious during intake. But Daye also said “there’s no smoking gun,” in part because people can refuse COVID-19 tests during booking.

Some inmates whose symptoms have been severe enough to be taken to the jail infirmary have received monoclonal antibody therapy, but that level of attention has not been the case for the vast majority of those infected. One person being held at Elmwood said in an interview that he and most of the other men who have contracted COVID-19 have gotten basic provisions to deal with their symptoms.

“All they give us is cough drops and Tylenol,” the person, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution, said in a phone interview with this news organization.

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