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200 inmates on lockdown at Sonoma County Jail amid COVID-19 outbreak

Nearly 200 people detained at the Sonoma County Jail are on lockdown because of a COVID-19 outbreak among staff and inmates — the third such outbreak at the jail since the pandemic started nearly two years ago.

Seven jail employees and 12 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since Dec. 28, authorities confirmed Tuesday.

Two housing units with a combined population of 192 people are quarantining to prevent the spread of the virus in the Main Adult Detention Facility in Santa Rosa, said Assistant Sheriff Eddie Engram, who oversees the jail.

The outbreak comes as COVID-19 cases are beginning to surge in Sonoma County, partly fueled by the highly infectious omicron variant. The local transmission rate is now an average of 50 new daily cases per 100,000 people, according to the county’s latest COVID-19 data.

Just two weeks ago, the overall transmission rate was just under 14 new cases per 100,000 residents, while the overall test positivity — the share of tests that result positive — was only 2.5%, according to county data. Test positivity is now 12%.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia said public health staff are scheduled to visit the jail on Wednesday to assist in further testing for the virus. Jail staff have been conducting their own testing since the onset of the outbreak.

It is not clear how the virus was introduced to the jail, Engram said. Upon booking, people must be screened for COVID-19 before they are housed in general population.

“It’s not really possible to tell for any individual inmate, but there are different ways they could become infected,” Engram said. “It could be from an employee here; they could have gotten it at the courthouse.”

A person who is contracted to work at the facility and who is not employed by the Sheriff’s Office was the first to test positive on Dec. 28, Engram said. A Sheriff’s Office employee then tested positive Dec. 29.

Two days later, an inmate who was experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 was confirmed positive, and on Jan. 1, screening found an inmate in another module had also contracted the virus.

Both inmates lived in worker housing units, which have broader contact with the rest of the jail. In the days since the first test returned positive, 10 other people detained in the two blocks were determined to be carrying the virus.

The blocks were placed on lockdown, meaning no outside visitors can enter and no inmates can leave barring a medical emergency. The inmates’ symptoms are all minor, according to Engram.

This is the third COVID-19 outbreak among inmates at the jail since the beginning of the pandemic, Engram said. The first took place a little more than a year ago. In December 2020, 18 inmates were infected as virus cases surged countywide during the winter. In July 2021, a total of 31 detainees came down with the disease.

During the second outbreak, veteran Sonoma County Sheriff’s Correctional Lt. Bobby Travelstead died of COVID-19 complications after contracting the virus. Travelstead, 40, who died Sept. 1, was the second Sonoma County peace officer to die of COVID-19.

To date, no inmates have been hospitalized or died due to COVID-19, Engram said.

“These things unfortunately occur from time to time. It happens every six months or so. However, we continue to use the proper protocols, and we believe even with our outbreaks we’ve continued to keep our inmates and staff safe at a higher rate than other facilities in the state,” Engram said.

In October, the agency came under fire for failing to disclose fully and in a timely manner that 11 of its deputies contracted the virus, including nine bailiffs at the Sonoma County Superior Court.

According to Valencia, the jail staff is 79% fully vaccinated. That compares with the countywide rate of 77% fully vaccinated and an additional 8% who have had at least one dose.

Jail staff are required to mask at all times with at least a surgical mask, Engram said, and the Sheriff’s Office will provide N95 respirators to any employees who ask.

“We are doing everything we can at the direction of public health and all the health orders that are out there, but even vaccinated and boosted individuals can contract COVID-19,” the assistant sheriff said.

The current surge in COVID-19 cases in the Bay Area and across the country is partly driven by the highly infectious omicron mutation of the virus. Valencia, the Sheriff’s spokesman, said he did not know whether omicron was detected in any of the 20 positive cases tied to the jail.

“That’s a question for public health,” Valencia said.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, refused to release any information about the latest jail outbreak, referring questions to the Sheriff’s Office. County spokesman Paul Gullixson said in an email that it’s been public health policy throughout the pandemic “not to comment about specific outbreaks” in the county.

But county public health officials have in fact released information about specific outbreaks in cases where they’ve been given permission to do so.

For example, public health staff provided information about a massive outbreak last July at Santa Rosa’s Samuel L. Jones Hall shelter, after the city approved the release of information.

When asked if the Sheriff’s Office would similarly allow public health to release information about the recent jail outbreak, Valencia said, “The Sheriff’s Office does not control what Public Health does and does not release regarding outbreaks.”

Engram said that continued testing will determine the extent of the outbreak. Every new positive test among the two units will extend their respective quarantine period another fourteen days.

During this time, all outside programming is halted. No service providers can come inside the housing blocks. Otherwise, Engram said, the blocks operate on their normal basis. No-contact visiting hours continue with visitors and inmates separated by glass. Detainees are allowed outside of their cells for showers, phone calls and other usual activities.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

Emily Wilder

Criminal justice and public safety, The Press Democrat  

Criminal justice is one of the most stirring and consequential systems, both in the North Bay and nationwide. Crime, policing, prosecution and incarceration have ripples that reach many parts of our lives, and these issues are under increasingly powerful microscopes. My goal is to uncover untold stories and understand the unique impacts of criminal justice and public safety on Sonoma County.

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