Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office faulted over response to courthouse COVID-19 outbreak
A COVID-19 outbreak late last month among at least nine Sonoma County sheriff’s court bailiffs has some defense attorneys and prosecutors worried they were exposed to the virus and outraged over what they said was insufficient notification of the outbreak.
One vaccinated attorney who frequents the courthouse was exposed and experienced a breakthrough infection during the time of the outbreak, multiple sources told The Press Democrat.
All nine court bailiffs — among a total of 11 Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies who were confirmed positive between Sept. 14 and Sept. 21 — were vaccinated and have since returned to work at the courthouse, according to sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia.
The county public health division refused to release any information about the outbreak, saying doing so would risk violating patient privacy laws.
Meanwhile, private defense attorneys said this week they had not been notified by anyone within the justice system or county public health if any of them were potentially exposed when they were in court on the days the Sheriff’s Office pinpointed the infected bailiffs’ whereabouts.
As unconfirmed reports about recent COVID-19 cases among bailiffs spread throughout the courthouse over the past several days, court administrators sought more specific information about an outbreak but were stonewalled by the Sheriff’s Office, they said.
“Inquires made to the Sheriff’s Office … to determine if other Sheriff’s Department employees had tested positive for COVID-19, and whether proper notifications were being provided, were met with inaccurate or incomplete responses,” read a joint statement released Friday by Sonoma County Superior Court, the District Attorney and Public Defender’s offices and the Probation Department. “Unfortunately, those inquiries went unanswered.”
Joint Statement Sonoma County Justice Partners 10.8.21.pdf
Sonoma County Superior Court Executive Officer Arlene Junior and District Attorney Jill Ravitch said the Sheriff’s Office was invited to participate in the statement but declined.
Ravitch said in an email to Sheriff Mark Essick that two sheriff’s supervisors downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak.
Valencia, the department spokesman, disputed there was any lapse in notification from the Sheriff’s Office, saying the agency followed public health and risk management guidelines.
“We were 100 percent in compliance in making those notifications,” he said.
“If there was some kind of breakdown in communication, it was not coming from us.”
Essick and other top sheriff’s leaders were unavailable Thursday and Friday for interviews seeking additional details.
Nineteen months into the pandemic, the dispute has revealed gaps in communication between top justice and sheriff’s officials and raised significant questions about ongoing inconsistencies and shortfalls in tracking workplace COVID-19 outbreaks and potential exposures.
Friday’s statement said the court administration, a state agency, and other justice officials only learned Thursday afternoon the number of bailiffs that tested positive was nine. Bailiffs move jail inmates to the court building for hearings and provide security inside the courthouse.
Sonoma County’s Hall of Justice, the main courthouse complex on Administration Drive in Santa Rosa, is the workplace for hundreds of county and state employees as well as private sector attorneys. At this point in the pandemic, criminal court hearings have resumed and dozens of defendants, jurors, witnesses and members of the public are present daily.
Members of the county’s private defense bar sent an email Sept. 30 to Presiding Judge Brad DeMeo and Junior, the chief administrator, voicing concern that they learned only on that day of the outbreak at least a week prior.
“As a result, many attorneys who have been at the courthouse recently — many in close contact with bailiffs — are concerned that they may have been exposed, and we all have questions such as when the exposures occurred and in which departments,” bar officials said in their email, which Junior shared.
The attorneys asked to be notified in the future of potential COVID exposures at the courthouse. Several private defense attorneys said they had received no response to their inquiry.
“The Sheriff’s Office is not sharing any information with the court administration or the people working in that building daily, which includes the defense bar,” said Santa Rosa attorney Roy Miller.
“Obviously, all of us are concerned,” he said. “We do not want to risk bringing the delta variant home to family members, some of whom include small children who have not be vaccinated.”
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