COVID-19 Cases Increase for Inmates and Staff at County Jail

Several Workers and Incarcerated Individuals Test Positive, as Concerns Over Lackluster Speed of Testing Results Emerge

Santa Barbara County Jail | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

[UPDATE 7/29] According to the Sheriff’s Department, three of the inmates who had tested positive were, upon retesting, found to be negative. The confusion was due to a lab error, and the Sheriff’s Office was notified of the mistake by a third-party testing lab on July 28, according to a press release from the Sheriff’s Office. The total number of inmates in the county jail who have tested positive for COVID-19 stands at nine. 

[ORIGINAL STORY] The Sheriff’s Department has confirmed that there have been eight new cases of COVID-19 in the county jail: three staff members and five incarcerated individuals. Since the pandemic began in March, the Sheriff’s Department says that 33 staff members at the jail have tested positive, 22 of which have recovered and are back at work. However, through a combination of precautionary measures and good fortune, the facility has largely managed to avoid a widespread breakout of the virus among the jail’s incarcerated population. But now the number of positive tests among the jail’s population has doubled from five to 10, raising concerns about the possibility of a larger outbreak.

For the last several weeks, the Sheriff’s Department has been attempting to test everyone in the jail, both staff and prisoners. Of the three staff members who tested positive, one had routine contact with incarcerated individuals, and the other two worked in administrative roles that did not bring them into regular contact with the jail’s population, according to the Sheriff’s Department. 

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But there is still often a very slow turnaround time for test results. It took two weeks for one part-time custody deputy to receive the positive result, during which time several other staff members were exposed, leading public officials to voice concern over such delays. At a  hearing on July 7, trial lawyer Robert Sanger told the court that “one inmate in the jail with health vulnerabilities was tested two weeks ago, and they still haven’t gotten their results back. These slow turnaround times make contact tracing less effective.” Judge Brian Hill seemed to share Sanger’s concerns, saying: “That doesn’t seem acceptable. For a facility of this nature, a turnaround time of 48 hours seems like a necessity.” 

The Sheriff’s Department relies on two laboratory facilities for test results, LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics. A member of the Sheriff’s Department explained that, with massive increases in COVID-19, the labs are stretched thin. “We’ve explored every possible option for commercial testing facilities, but all of them have long waiting lists,” said Sheriff’s Commander Ryan Sullivan. Receiving results from LabCorp and Quest can vacillate in speed, from anywhere from under 24 hours to 10 days. According to the Sheriff’s Department, all four incarcerated individuals who tested positive received their results in under three days. 

Of the ten inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19, three have been released from custody, one has recovered and been returned to jail’s general population, and six are currently isolated and being treated, according to a press release from the Sheriff’s Department. 

At the Santa Barbara Independent, our staff is working around the clock to cover every aspect of this crisis — sorting truth from rumor.  Our reporters and editors are asking the tough questions of our public health officials and spreading the word about how we can all help one another. The community needs us — now more than ever — and we need you  in order to keep doing the important work we do. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.


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