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SF orders COVID-19 testing for jail workers after outbreak among sheriff staff

San Francisco health officials are ordering mandatory COVID-19 testing for anyone working at The City’s jails after a recent outbreak infected members of the Sheriff’s Department.

The Department of Public Health issued an order Thursday requiring regular testing for all deputies, public defenders and other workers visiting the jails in San Bruno and South of Market.

The order comes more than a month after officials say 22 members of the Sheriff’s Department, including nine staffers working at the jails, tested positive for COVID-19 in January.

Just 47 members of the Sheriff’s Department had tested positive from the beginning of the pandemic last March until the spike in January.

The increase coincided with a broader surge of coronavirus cases that began last November in San Francisco and across the Bay Area.

“It absolutely reflected what was going on in San Francisco,” said Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Nancy Crowley. “We are not an island.”

Jails and other correctional facilities have been at heightened risk since the pandemic began since the virus can spread easily indoors in congregate settings.

While the order says the Sheriff’s Department is “currently experiencing an outbreak,” just four staffers tested positive in February, including three assigned to the jails, and none so far in March.

Ken Lomba, president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, said he supported testing “in confined areas such as the hospitals and jails” but questioned the timing of the order.

“This would have been more appropriate two to three months ago when cases where at an all-time high,” Lomba said.

Sheriff’s deputies were among those to begin getting vaccinated last month as San Francisco moved into Phase 1B of California’s vaccination priority plan.

Lomba said he is also concerned that The City threatened to terminate employees who refuse to comply with testing after two opportunities.

“It’s unnecessarily harsh, it does not allow deviation on a case-by-case basis,” Lomba said.

Dr. Lisa Pratt, the director of Jail Health Services with DPH, said the order was being “vetted and drafted” by attorneys following the outbreak in January.

“This health order is to provide ongoing universal testing to prevent any outbreak in the future,” Pratt said.

A statement from DPH said the order has been in the works for “some time” in coordination with the Sheriff’s Department and Jail Health Services.

“San Francisco is following the best practices that are in keeping with other counties who require mandatory testing for anyone who enters a correctional facility,” DPH said.

The San Francisco Examiner first reported the outbreak in January when 10 staffers including three captains tested positive in a week.

The department, which has about 1,000 employees including 800 sworn staff, has had a total of 73 staffers test positive since last March.

The January surge also coincided with 24 inmates testing positive that month, up from the previous high of 20 last December and 19 last August.

Deputies were previously offered voluntary testing, while all inmates are offered but not required to receive testing, according to Crowley.

“The pandemic isn’t over,” Crowley said. “We are going to comply with the health order to protect the people in our custody’s continued health and safety.”

mbarba@sfexaminer.com.

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