Calif. jail board vows to publish COVID-19 case data

The state has taken criticism for failing to collect and publish data about COVID-19 testing and outbreaks in local jails

By Jason Pohl
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s jail oversight board on Wednesday said it would collect and publish data about COVID-19 cases in county facilities, a response to months of public criticism and an apparently faltering effort to get similar information from the state’s health department.

The Board of State and Community Corrections in a letter to sheriffs asks them to provide data about COVID-19 deaths as well as positive cases among employees and inmates.

It also requests that sheriffs ensure their jail medical providers work more closely with county health officials. The counties, in turn, collaborate with the state, the goal being to improve the information in an existing infectious disease database used to track the spread of COVID-19.

“It is clear that cases from detention facilities are significantly underreported in this database and are inaccurate compared to public and media reports on COVID-19 cases in jails and juvenile detention facilities,” Board Chair Linda Penner wrote. “Consequently, the BSCC is launching this effort to provide facility-level data on COVID-19 cases and deaths.”

Jails and prisons in California and across the country are home to the most significant COVID-19 outbreaks. They account for nine of the 10 highest case counts, according to The New York Times. An outbreak at San Quentin State Prison has infected more than 2,000 people in custody. Jails in Fresno and Monterey counties have seen an explosion in cases in recent days.

While the state provides detailed data about COVID-19 in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and prisons, there has yet to be a comprehensive accounting of its spread in local jails.

The existing database, called the California Reportable Disease Information Exchange, is controlled by the Department of Public Health. It has long been a repository for information about infections, including those in jails.

But the apparently piecemealed and unreliable data has never been released, leaving local leaders and the public in the dark about the spread of the virus inside jail cells.

“We are alarmed by the BSCC’s statement that cases are being significantly underreported,” said Brian Goldstein, director of policy and development with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “Now California must act quickly to track the scope of COVID-19 infections, to inspect these facilities and protect those inside. The health and safety of thousands of people who are incarcerated is at stake.”

The California Department of Public Health did not immediately provide comment.

For months, the state has taken criticism for failing to collect and publish basic data about COVID-19 testing and outbreaks in local jails. Advocates, families and even some members of the state’s own jail oversight board have been frustrated by opacity.

“At some point, we need to stop not having oversight,” Scott Budnick, a BSCC board member who also founded the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said at last month’s meeting.

Experts have long warned that if the coronavirus gets into a jail or prison it can rapidly spread and infect employees who can further spread it across the community in a dangerous feedback loop.

“The need for this information is just so obvious,” Michele Deitch, a jails and prisons expert who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law and Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, said last month.

“Finding out the numbers of people that are infected and how widespread the virus is, how many people are dying, just seems like the most basic information they should be gathering.”

The jail oversight board says it is “urgently requesting” sheriffs provide facility-level COVID-19 data beginning on Monday. It plans to publish information beginning July 31.

The new reporting is likely to come up during an emergency board meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday.

For months, though, the state board that regulates California’s county jails and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office both maintained local sheriffs should work with public health departments to test for and contain the disease.

It was up to individual counties and sheriffs to publish county-specific details about testing and infections inside local lockups, the state said previously.

Where some counties like Santa Clara and Los Angeles publish online dashboards, other county sheriffs still don’t post information about jail infections online at all.

In Sacramento, officials only update the information publicly when journalists request the latest data — if they respond at all. As of Wednesday afternoon, 18 inmates in total had tested positive, a county health department spokesperson said.

And some counties with widespread jail outbreaks, like Fresno where more than 600 inmates have been infected by the coronavirus, have only sporadically updated the public about testing.

The most recent case count was on July 2 — nearly two weeks ago.

“We don’t have any new numbers to release. This remains a fluid situation and testing is ongoing,” spokesman Tony Botti said Wednesday in an email to The Sacramento Bee. “We stay in direct contact with the Fresno County Department of Public Health who is in contact with the state health department.”


©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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