(Mike Koozmin/2015 S.F. Examiner)

Two COVID-19 cases confirmed among inmates as testing expands

A week after expanding coronavirus testing for newly booked inmates at County Jail, officials have confirmed two cases of the respiratory illness among the incarcerated population in San Francisco.

The first case was confirmed last Thursday, involving an inmate who was in custody for less than 24 hours before being released, while the second results came back Sunday for a person booked a day earlier.

Both stayed at County Jail No. 2 on Seventh Street — away from the main population, where one remains in isolation behind a solid door, according to Dr. Lisa Pratt, the head of Jail Health Services.

The other inmate was released and notified of the test results.

While neither showed symptoms of the virus, the inmates were tested during the booking process because of heightened concerns over the virus spreading in the community through asymptomatic carriers.

Jail health professionals began testing all inmates who stay overnight beginning last Monday after an outbreak at a nearby homeless shelter on Bryant Street infected nearly 100 homeless people and 10 staffers.

Most of the infected individuals at MSC-South, the homeless shelter, did not show symptoms, according to Pratt.

“That caused a really big level of concern,” Pratt said. “We were really anxious about what we could be seeing in the jail and not knowing.”

But Pratt said she was “reassured” to learn that just two of the 140 inmates tested thus far have been confirmed to have the virus, compared to the higher rate among people tested at the shelter.

Pratt said public health officials have recognized the need for testing in congregate settings because of outbreaks not only at MSC-South but at nursing homes and correctional facilities nationwide.

“What has happened at Cook County and at Rikers is really haunting,” Pratt said, referring to situations in Chicago and New York City jails. “Lots and lots of cases, lots and lots of death.”

Jail medical professionals and city leaders including Sheriff Paul Miyamoto have responded to the threat with a number of measures, including isolating newly arrested inmates at County Jail No. 2.

After the first inmate tested positive, Miyamoto said in a statement that his department and Jail Health Services had worked “in overdrive to minimize contact among the people in our jails.”

“We were prepared for this eventuality and are doing everything we can to protect the people in our custody as well as the health and safety of the greater community that we serve,” Miyamoto said.

Last month, Pratt called on criminal justice leaders to reduce the jail population from more than 1,100 to between 700 and 800 so that she had enough room to space out inmates and implement social distancing.

And the population has fallen. As of Monday, the count reached 748.

But Public Defender Manohar Raju has called for it to fall further, saying that “multiple strangers still share sinks, toilets, and bunk beds.”

“It is vital that the jail population reduction work not only continue but accelerate,” Raju said in a statement. “These conditions prevent social distancing and proper hygiene and continue to be dangerous for everyone living or working inside the jails.”

While Pratt has said there should be 700 to 800 inmates behind bars to protect incarcerated people as well as deputies and health care workers at the jails, new legislation could complicate the issue.

Supervisor Sandra Fewer has proposed closing the seismically unsafe County Jail No. 4 above the Hall of Justice by November. She has cited the shrunken jail population as reason to shutter the facility.

While not commenting directly on the legislation, Pratt said the dilapidated jail should close and not house anybody. But she currently needs the nearly 400 beds there to separate inmates.

“Right now that space is really important,” Pratt said. “The more space and room we have to spread people out, the less likely something could take hold and turn into an outbreak.”

But she also acknowledged that the situation could change in six months.

At present, Pratt said there are seven or eight inmates who are isolated with possible exposure to the virus through the two confirmed cases.

Last month, five staffers with the Sheriff’s Department tested positive, including two deputies at County Jail No. 4.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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