COVID-19 cases in Santa Rita Jail surge as vaccine rates fall behind

photo of Santa Rita jail
Lisi Ludwig/File
A surge in COVID-19 cases at Santa Rita Jail was seen alongside low vaccination rates in the jail. Protocols have been implemented to encourage vaccination among inmates in an effort to minimize another spike in cases.

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COVID-19 cases surged at Santa Rita Jail, according to Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

At the peak of the current outbreak, 46 inmates tested positive for COVID-19. As of Thursday, the number of positive cases has decreased to 40. Seven inmates are symptomatic with “mild to moderate symptoms,” Kelly said in an email. These individuals have been quarantined in the jail’s outpatient housing unit, he added. The remaining patients are asymptomatic.

Vaccine rates in Santa Rita Jail continue to fall behind Alameda County as a whole. Roughly 25% to 30% of inmates are currently vaccinated, Kelly said. In comparison, as of Sunday, more than 76% of Alameda County’s population (excluding those who are under 12 years of age) have been fully vaccinated.

Kelly said there are a “number of factors” influencing Santa Rita Jail’s relatively low vaccine rates.

“People in custody have a lot of the same concerns and reservations that are out in the community,” he said.

Some inmates, Kelly alleged, may not trust vaccines or the jail’s medical system, while others are “in custody fighting a serious case” and may have priorities other than COVID-19. He added that the transitory nature of the jail’s population poses additional difficulties.

Activist groups Santa Rita Jail Solidarity and Decarcerate Alameda County could not be reached for comment as of press time.

According to Kelly, the jail’s efforts to increase vaccination rates among its inmate population include sharing videos on tablets and televisions that the inmates have access to, posting signage promoting the vaccines and holding meetings with the jail’s nursing and medical staff.

Kelly believes about half of the prison’s employees have been vaccinated. According to Kelly, in May 2021, 36% of the jail’s employees had received both doses of the vaccine and 56% had received one dose. More of the jail’s staff have been vaccinated since then, he added.

The prison’s COVID-19 protocols, set by Alameda County Health Officer Nicholas Moss, mandate weekly testing for nonvaccinated jail employees, Kelly said. Fully vaccinated employees can choose to forgo the weekly testing. In the current outbreak, 10 employees also tested positive for COVID-19.

Kelly added that it is “not the first time” the jail has dealt with a spike. In 2020, the jail had a spike of 110 cases.

During previous COVID-19 outbreaks at Santa Rita Jail, the jail’s administration faced widespread criticism, with National Lawyers Guild San Francisco releasing a letter, which alleged that “the negligent medical care and the unsanitary conditions experienced by clients who have caught COVID-19 amounts to punishment in and of itself” and called on county officials to improve living conditions in the jail.

“We will knock this spike down using our outbreak control plan, sanitation, masking, education and all the Covid protocols,” Kelly said in the email. “Covid safety and the health of those in custody is our utmost priority.”

Iris Kwok is a crime and courts reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @iriskkwok.