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Sheriff Honea On COVID-19 Outbreak At Butte County Jail: 53 Positive, 88 Recovered

Dozens of inmates at the Butte County Jail in Oroville have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, with many of the cases detected in the last several weeks. 

NSPR's Andre Byik spoke with Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea by phone on Thursday about the outbreak there. Andre first asked the sheriff to explain the extent of the spread of the virus at the facility.

Here are highlights from their conversation. You can also listen at the top of the page.

Interview Highlights

I'd like to start with the recent uptick in COVID cases at the jail. Can you explain what the extent of the outbreak has been there? 

As we sit here today, there are 53 individuals in custody who have currently tested positive for COVID-19. Eighty-eight individuals have been released from their isolation period and recovered, and we're expecting another 38 to be released from their isolation period beginning tomorrow and through the weekend. 

Do you have any indication as to how the virus may have been introduced at the jail? 

No, I think, from the very beginning, we worked hard to try to prevent the introduction of COVID into facilities. And then beyond that, mitigate its spread. I think that is consistent with what other segments of the community had done, as well as other correctional facilities throughout the state. That included of course, screening individuals, as well as staff members, as they came in, increased efforts to clean the facility, provide PPE. 

The difficulty or real challenge is when you're dealing with individuals who are either asymptomatic or pre symptomatic, because there isn't a real good way to screen those individuals or identify them before they make their way into an environment. 

Speaking of asymptomatic or pre symptomatic individuals, can you share perhaps the nature of the illnesses related to COVID at the jail? Have there been any inmates who have fallen seriously ill or maybe even died? 

We've had no deaths, thankfully. Very happy about that, of course. The vast majority of the inmates who experienced COVID-19 have either been asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. We had two individuals who were displaying reduced oxygen saturation levels that were sent to the hospital for observation. They were treated and subsequently released back to the jail. As we sit here today, there are no inmates in the hospital as a result of COVID-19. 

In addition to that, we've had nine staff members who have tested positive. All of them have also been either asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. 

What measures are taken after an inmate tests positive for COVID? 

Sure. So I think I'd like to start with, you know, the stuff that we do from the very beginning. So early on, and we continue to do this, set up screening for individuals who enter the facility — that includes a member of our medical staff meeting the detainees and the arresting officer outside the facility. Their temperature is taken. They're asked questions as to whether or not they might be symptomatic or have been in contact with somebody who's been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

Depending on how they answer those questions, if they have a temperature or they have expressed contact with somebody, we have the capacity to isolate them or send them to be cleared. If they're not, when they're brought into our booking facility, they're required to wear a mask while they're in there. If they're not released, pursuant to the law then they're housed. What we try to do is house them in an area that meets their classification needs, but obviously, isn't a housing unit that is isolated because of a positive COVID-19 test. 

Once they're in the facility, if there is a positive test and there's an outbreak within a housing unit, what we do is do our best to isolate those individuals who have either tested positive or who have been exposed to somebody and isolate them from other housing units that have not tested positive or have not been exposed.

It's a quick follow up to that, is it realistic to be able to separate individuals who have tested positive for COVID from the jail population that does not have COVID or has not yet tested positive for COVID? 

It's certainly a challenge and one of the things that we ultimately have been doing is trying to manage population to maintain capacity within the facility. So, as you know, as you've done a number of stories on the jail, our capacity because jail is 614. We have 614 beds. Today, our population is around 476. So we have about 200 open beds. But you also know that, not all beds are created equally, as I've said in the past, in terms of how you house individuals based on their classification or their needs. A good example of that is our medical housing unit right now. I only have three beds within our medical wing. That's one of the reasons that I'm working so hard to get a new facility that has increased capacity with regard to our ability to handle inmates with medical or mental health issues. But ultimately, one of the ways in which we do that is trying to maintain capacity, quarantining entire housing unit. And it certainly is not without challenge by any stretch of the imagination. But we are working to do that. 

You mentioned the reduction in inmates in the daily population at the jail, do you have discretion to perhaps further decrease the number of individuals who are held there? 

So we were given some increased authority with regard to our consent decree from the court to make releases within guidelines and within parameters. And that's a complex balance of competing interests that we have to deal with on a daily basis, not only in terms of being able to deal with patients, but also to deal with other interests of public safety. 

Certainly you cannot release everybody from the jail. There are individuals, as they've demonstrated, they pose an increased threat to public safety. And there are other individuals that we cannot release by law. A good example: We're currently housing approximately 70 individuals who have been sentenced to state prison, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has stopped accepting new transfers from county jails. So those individuals are pending transfer to state prison which is as I said, has been suspended. I suspect that will be the case for the foreseeable future. 

One of the things that we're ultimately doing with with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is working to determine the time computations for those individual sentences. It is possible that a good number of those will actually serve the entirety of their state prison sentence in the Butte County Jail and will be released from the jail once their sentence is served and never having made it to the state prison system. 

Is there anything I haven't asked you about the jail and COVID that you'd like to add or perhaps clarify? 

Well, obviously we're taking it very seriously. We're doing our best to try to mitigate the spread. I'm thankful at this point that we haven't had any of our inmates or staff members fall seriously ill or suffered death. That's something that we're working hard to prevent. But this is an extremely challenging situation. I think that we're certainly by no means alone in dealing with these challenges. It is an issue that is being dealt with throughout the community, throughout the state of California, both in the general public as well as other correctional facilities. And so we're continuing to adjust to an ever-changing environment, update our procedures based on new guidance that comes out. I think that's been one of the more particularly challenging aspects of this is this ever-evolving process. As new information comes out, we try to adopt it, incorporate it, to make sure that we're utilizing the best practices of the day. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.