Worker at County Jail Tests Positive for COVID-19

Twelve Staff Members, Including Four Custody Deputies, Quarantined at Home After Potential Exposure

Santa Barbara County Jail | Credit: Paul Wellman File

A dozen Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, county, and medical contract employees are under self-isolation in their homes after potential exposure to a civilian Sheriff’s Office employee who tested positive for COVID-19. The statement released Tuesday evening described the employee as a resident of San Luis Obispo County who worked in the main jail’s control room and fell sick at work after returning from a trip to Europe. The employee tested positive for COVID-19. None of the 12 employees who interacted with the individual are, as of now, experiencing symptoms.

A second exposure occurred in a courtroom in Santa Maria. An attorney from San Luis Obispo County became ill after working in the court last Thursday and tested positive for COVID-19. Both his inmate client and his client’s cellmate were placed in a negative-pressure location. They and a bailiff in the courtroom are asymptomatic so far. The two inmates are monitored by jail staff, and the bailiff is under self-quarantine. Others in the courtroom were told by the court to seek their own medical evaluation.

The incidents highlight rising concern across the country regarding the vulnerability of the U.S. prison population to the spread of COVID-19. “We are painfully aware that the close quarters of a jail environment pose significant challenges to a response for an illness such as COVID-19,” said Vincent Wasilewski, chief custody deputy for the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office said it has stepped up sanitation efforts at the jail and tried to be proactive. “We began using the CDC screening model [questions regarding travel, known contact with a positive case, and taking their temperature] for the past several weeks,” said Wasilewski.

Still, such measures can only do so much to counter the fact that jails are, by their nature, ripe for spread of an epidemic. Across the country, many other facilities have prioritized decreasing the number of inmates being held in facilities. In Los Angeles County, daily arrests have dropped from 300 to 60, and the Los Angeles County population of inmates was decreased by 600 in an attempt to lower the number of people incarcerated as the virus continues to spread. In Alameda County, the Public Defender asked prosecutors to utilize pre-trial diversion programs and early release programs to protect their inmate population, when compatible with public safety. California suspended visitation to state prisons last Wednesday, and Santa Barbara County has followed its lead by suspending visitations.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Santa Barbara Public Defender’s Office called for the immediate release of inmates at South County Jail who do not pose a serious risk to public safety. “Our clients are living in close proximity to one another with poor ventilation, lacking the opportunity to self-sanitize and practice social distancing,” said Public Defender Tracy Macuga in a statement on Tuesday. “They are required to eat, sleep, and shower in shared living spaces.” Macuga went on to state that by releasing vulnerable, low-risk inmates, the jail might have a fighting chance to decrease the risk currently posed to both staff and inmates. 

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