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3 Sonoma County jail inmates test positive for coronavirus

Three Sonoma County Jail inmates are in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, including one who recently appeared in a courtroom for a hearing, officials said Wednesday.

Sonoma County Superior Court Executive Officer Arlene Junior said the inmate had appeared in court Aug. 4, prompting a thorough cleaning of the room and notification to staff and judicial officers present at the time. Separately, a courthouse staff member in the criminal division was diagnosed with COVID-19 Monday and is quarantined at home, she said. That person was not working in a public-facing role.

The recent infections in the county’s criminal justice system come amid an overall uptick in reports of COVID-19 cases in the county, the scope of which is currently unknown because of a major statewide backlog at testing laboratories.

“We are vigilant and diligent,” Junior said. “We recognize that there are difficult months ahead of us with the disease.”

Countywide, there were 3,859 reported cases of COVID-19, including 34 new cases reported Wednesday night. Of those, 51 people have died from the disease, including a woman over 65 years old who died Tuesday at a skilled nursing facility, county health officials said.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia said the new infections in the jail prompted additional testing among staff and inmates for coronavirus and most of those results were pending, with one negative result so far.

Two of the inmates were booked in the past seven days and another was diagnosed through voluntary testing done periodically in the facility among staff and inmates, he said.

“There is always testing going on at the jail, they’re doing surveillance testing all the time,” Valencia said.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Wednesday she expects to dramatically ramp up the county’s ability to test for COVID-19 by the end of the month, a plan to both prepare for a rise in cases and prevent future backlogs.

A statewide backlog of nearly 300,000 test results dating back to July 25 has left local public health officials without updated data.

The state’s logjam has slowed local public health workers’ ability to isolate people newly diagnosed with COVID-19 and prevent them from spreading the disease to others, Mase said. The county received some test results from the state Monday, and staff are still analyzing the information.

Mase said she expects the number of local infections fully updated by the end of the week.

The county expects to receive a new machine from the state capable of running three tests in the amount of time it currently takes to run a single test. They have signed a contract with a third party to help boost staffing at the public health lab so it can operate around the clock, Mase said.

“If the testing is done in our public health lab, we are completely in control of the turnaround time,” Mase said.

The jail reported its first case of COVID-19 among inmates in June, which prompted widespread testing.

Sheriff’s Officials Wednesday could not provide information about how many inmates have tested positive for the disease since that first case. Valencia said Assistant Sheriff Eddie Engram, who oversees the detention division, was unavailable Wednesday evening.

The new infection at the courthouse prompted all-staff meetings Wednesday, Junior said.

So far, three courthouse workers have tested positive for COVID-19, including Judge Jamie Thistlethwaite and two staffers. Thistlethwaite contracted the virus in March, possibly from her husband, who believes he was exposed while on a skiing trip to Aspen. The couple has spoken out about their experience and have warned people to adhere to public health rules.

The courthouse reopened for public hearings in June. Junior said she is confident the courthouse has the protective measures in place to protect defendants and courthouse workers if they follow best practices. Everyone in the courtroom wears a mask and inmates are given 10 feet of space to protect them, she said.

“Thus far, we have not had any evidence of the disease transmitting from one employee to the next,” Junior said.

Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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