Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office faulted over response to courthouse COVID-19 outbreak

Other law enforcement departments and the court administration say the Sheriff’s Office didn’t sufficiently communicate about COVID-19 cases among its ranks.|

Sonoma County Courthouse outbreak

Here are the courtrooms and dates the Sheriff’s Office said were affected by COVID-19 positive bailiffs:

9/14: Department 5 (AM), Department 10 (PM)

9/15: Department 5 (AM and PM)

9/16: Department 2 (AM), Department 5 (AM and PM), Department 3 (AM and PM), Department 8 (AM), Department 9 (AM), Department 10 (AM and PM)

9/17: Department 3 (AM), Department 10 (AM)

9/20: Department 9 (AM)

Source: Two emails from the Sheriff’s Office to court and county department heads

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.”

Among the county of Sonoma’s 4,400 employees, the Sheriff’s Office has the lowest vaccination rate, with 73% of its roughly 600 employees fully vaccinated, according to the county. Overall, 88% of county employees have been verified as vaccinated. As of Sept. 24, all unvaccinated first responders in Sonoma County have been required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.

Junior said that there is an agreement among various entities that have workers in the courthouse that if an employee tests positive, that person’s employer is responsible for alerting other departments.

Valencia, the Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said he had no knowledge of that agreement and that other department leaders denied such an agreement exists. He said public health guidelines require the agency only to notify court administrators.

However, state public health regulations require that if an employee tests positive, their employer must notify all its staff that could have been exposed as well as alerting “any other employer who has potentially exposed employees in the workplace” within one day.

Sheriff’s officials seemed unclear about their obligations to notify other agencies with court-based employees in emails sent days following the potential exposures.

“Do you share this information with the other justice partners? I want to make sure they are aware,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Pete Quartarolo in a Sept. 21 email.

“I do not share information regarding non-court employees with” agencies affiliated with the court, Junior wrote in response. “The Sheriff’s office generally notifies Probation, DA and PD (Public Defender) directly.”

The next day, Quartarolo followed up in an email to those department heads. “I also provide this information to Court Administration and recently learned that it is not disseminated to the justice partners. I will provide the information going forward,” he wrote.

Junior conceded that COVID-19 rules and regulations are still complicated more than a year and a half into the pandemic.

“We have all been put in a position in this pandemic that has taken a lot of training and education and skill sets,” she said.

“The sheriff seems woefully ill-prepared to communicate with justice partners,” she added.

Other emails obtained by The Press Democrat from multiple sources indicate that some of those who work in and frequent the courthouse still have not been notified of the extent of the outbreak and when or where they may have been exposed to infected bailiffs.

Local private defense attorney Walter Rubenstein said lawyers like him and their clients “always fall in the cracks, and we are the last to know.”

The attorneys learned of the positive cases not through an official notification but through courthouse gossip. One local defense attorney who declined to be named to protect others’ privacy said that he was told by sheriff’s deputies upon return that they had contracted COVID-19. Some of them even reported experiencing ongoing symptoms of loss of taste and smell, he said. He estimated that the number out sick was over a dozen.

“I heard there was an outbreak with the sheriff — it was indefinite how many, it was indefinite what ‘outbreak’ meant,” Rubenstein said.

Private attorneys and members of the public do not receive formal notification in cases of an outbreak, as they are not employees of any of the courthouse agencies. They are supposed to be reached by a county contact tracer if there was a potential exposure, Junior said.

Contact tracing can be difficult when hundreds of people pass through the court every day, Junior said. But each courtroom has a log of attorneys and other courthouse workers who were present, which contact tracers can use to track down people potentially exposed to the virus.

More than a week before the defense bar sent its email, the Sheriff’s Office sent its first email notifying court officials of the outbreak. That Sept. 21 email went to Junior and identified five involved courtrooms over five days, from Sept. 14 through Sept. 21.

A second Sheriff’s Office email from Quartarolo came Sept. 22 and notified other law enforcement and justice leaders of a “potential exposure.” It went to Ravitch, interim Public Defender Jeff Mitchell and Chief Probation Officer David Koch. It informed them of possible exposures over a shorter three-day time span but in two more courtrooms.

Lt. Andrew Cash, in a separate email that same day, said the department tracked the outbreak to a sheriff’s break room, where employees remove their masks to eat and drink. The outbreak did not spread to correctional deputies who supervise inmates inside the jail or to any inmates, said Assistant Sheriff Eddie Engram.

The emails gave no further details, including that multiple deputies had tested positive for the virus.

When asked by Ravitch that day to provide more information about how many cases there were and whether her staff of prosecuting attorneys, investigators and other court staff might be at risk, Quartarolo told her that the outbreak included a half-dozen deputies at that point.

Cash replied to Ravitch’s email that the department had been working with county public health and human resources officials to identify anyone outside the department who may have been in close contact with an infected bailiff.

Ravitch said Cash and Quartarolo “minimized the situation” in her email to Essick seeking better communication.

None of the emails between sheriff’s officials and Ravitch mention notifying inmates, private attorneys, court staff or members of the public of their potential exposure.

Ravitch asked Essick to explain why other county managers hadn’t been alerted to the outbreak so they could notify and protect their staff.

Ravitch said Essick had not responded to her email. “We’ve not gotten to the bottom of it yet,” she said.

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

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or On Twitter @loriacarter.

Sonoma County Courthouse outbreak

Here are the courtrooms and dates the Sheriff’s Office said were affected by COVID-19 positive bailiffs:

9/14: Department 5 (AM), Department 10 (PM)

9/15: Department 5 (AM and PM)

9/16: Department 2 (AM), Department 5 (AM and PM), Department 3 (AM and PM), Department 8 (AM), Department 9 (AM), Department 10 (AM and PM)

9/17: Department 3 (AM), Department 10 (AM)

9/20: Department 9 (AM)

Source: Two emails from the Sheriff’s Office to court and county department heads

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