Sonoma County Jail hit with second outbreak of COVID-19

Since July 23 when it began, 31 inmates have contracted COVID-19, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.|

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In its second outbreak since the pandemic began, 31 inmates in the Sonoma County Jail have contracted the infectious disease amid a another wave of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations countywide.

All the infected jail inmates are asymptomatic and the outbreak that began July 23 appears isolated from the general inmate population, Sheriff’s Office officials said.

The virus spread among those recently booked into the jail who are kept away from the other inmates, while they undergo a 14-day observation period, Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Juan Valencia said.

There are 12 jail staff members under quarantine for exposure to the infected inmates, Valencia said Thursday. He declined to say if any of those people had tested positive for the virus.

The outbreak comes during a surge of COVID-19 transmission in the county, including in some of the institutional housing sites that have concerned local public health experts since the pandemic’s arrival in spring 2020.

A worse outbreak is unfolding at the Samuel L. Jones Hall homeless shelter in Santa Rosa, where 110 of 156 shelter residents and three staff have been infected since early July. One shelter resident died from the virus on Sunday.

Countywide, much of the upswing in virus-related hospitalizations, new cases and testing, has been attributed to the powerful delta variant of the coronavirus. This variant, which is much more transmissible than earlier mutations, now is the dominant strain nationally and it has particularly devastated pockets of the country with great numbers of unvaccinated people.

The county health department is testing whether the inmates at the jail have been infected with the more contagious delta strain, department spokesman Matt Brown said.

Officials also are investigating how the virus entered the jail, where there are 730 inmates, Valencia said.

Inmates are tested for the virus within four days of entering, and are kept in a single cell until they receive a negative test, Valencia said. They are then moved into group housing for another 14 days of observation before they enter the jail’s general population. Inmates who refuse to accept a test are quarantined alone for 14 days.

The outbreak occurred in a housing unit where 96 inmates were under observation. The 31 infected inmates were isolated from the group and the remainder are undergoing virus testing, he said.

The jail offers inmates vaccines against COVID-19, but does not require them of either inmates or staff. There have been 272 inmates inoculated with the single shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine since inoculations began early this year, according to the county health department. It’s unclear how many of those vaccinated inmates remain in the jail or how many were there for short stays as the jail population fluctuates frequently.

The Sheriff’s Office, in concert with the Sonoma County District Attorney and Public Defender offices, has sought to limit the population to around 700 inmates or less during the pandemic.

Of the 730 inmates now in the county jail, Valencia said, 240 of them are undergoing the 14-day observation.

The jail has for the most part not relaxed public health protocols it instituted at the beginning of the pandemic, when law enforcement and judicial officials agreed to release hundreds of people who weren’t considered threats to public safety in an effort to lessen jail crowding.

The jail went through a previous significant outbreak in December 2020, when 18 inmates were infected as COVID-19 cases surged countywide in the winter months.

Sonoma County’s jail has so far averted some of the dire outbreaks seen among inmate populations nationally. To date, there has been no death or serious hospitalization of an inmate due to COVID-19, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

California’s state prison system has recorded 230 deaths throughout the pandemic, according to the Los Angeles Times. Infections and deaths have leveled off in recent months after spiking during the winter’s surge of the pandemic disease. There were only 53 active cases in the state’s prison system on July 26, according to the LA Times.

The Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury in a June report commended the Sheriff’s Office for a quick response to the coronavirus and “unprecedented cooperation” among the different parts of the county’s justice system.

The safety protections against COVID-19 came at a cost to inmate well-being, the grand jury found, as inmates were kept in their cells for 23 hours a day and outside visitation and educational programming was canceled.

In-person visitations resumed at the beginning of May, but there’s no link between the ongoing outbreak and visitors, Valencia said.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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