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Orange County officials have identified the first case of the novel coronavirus hitting their jails after a man tested positive among the scores of inmates currently locked up.
OC Sheriff Don Barnes will address the virus case which came from the Men’s Central Jail at the 1:30 p.m. news conference today.
The Department is identifying inmates and deputies who came into contact with a man who tested positive for the novel coronavirus and are quarantining the people four at least 14 days.
“We have an electronic card reader system for inmates within our custody facilities, so we will be able to track who the inmate had contact with over the last 14 days,” said Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun before the news conference.
Braun said the OC Central Jail, where the man who tested positive was serving time, has enough space to isolate inmates if they show virus symptoms. Quarantine is used to limit inmate’s movement in the clink and keep an eye on them for any signs of the virus.
“It’s important to note the distinction between isolation and quarantine. Isolation is for those who are symptomatic and those individuals who are symptomatic will be isolated alone to the capacity we have to do in the jail. We are not at that capacity at that time,” Braun said.
Braun said the department is also closely watching deputies who were near the inmate who has the virus.
“We’re identifying all of the deputies who have been exposed. We have done a very good job internally talking to our staff to maintain social distance as much as possible,” said Braun, adding the jailhouse environment makes distancing difficult at times.
Sheriff’s union president Tom Dominguez said deputies are concerned.
“Where the guys are very concerned, is the PPE [protective equipment] is starting to trickle in, and we would like to see it trickle in much faster,” Dominguez said in a Wednesday morning interview.
Braun said the department is providing protective equipment, like masks, to deputies who closely guard the inmate population.
“I know that we are providing PPE specifically to deputies who are working with individuals who are isolated and quarantined,” the department’s lead spokeswoman, Braun said.
“It’s stressful on the personnel working in the jails [and juvenile hall], especially now that we have at least one confirmed patient testing positive for the virus. So when you have that occur in an environment that’s completely enclosed, it does cause some stress,” Dominguez said.
Meanwhile, Orange County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kirk Nakaumra is trying to thin OC’s jail population to prevent a widespread virus outbreak in the clink.
Nakaumra’s March 24 order is lowering bail amounts to zero on certain cases.
“…for all misdemeanors except for those listed in Penal Code section 1270.1 and for lower-level felonies. This will result in fewer individuals in county jails thus alleviating some of the pressures for arraignments within 48 hours and preliminary hearings within 10 days,” reads Nakaumra’s order.
The OC Courts are also shut down, mostly.
The judge’s order also encouraged early releases, including juvenile inmates.
“With the assistance of justice partners, identify those persons currently in county jail or juvenile hall custody who have less than 60 days remaining on their jail sentence for the purpose of modifying their sentences to permit early release of such persons with or without supervision or to community-based organizations of treatment,” reads the order.
Braun said the department hasn’t done any early releases yet.
Nakaumra’s order also suspended “all civil trials, hearings and proceedings for at least 60 days, with the exception of time-sensitive matters, such as restraining orders and urgent dependency, probate and family matters.”
Daisy Ramirez, the Orange County jails project coordinator for local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, said the ACLU has been petitioning the Nakaumra to “depopulate” the jails when it sent a March 12 letter to the presiding judge.
“We learned about [the positive virus case] yesterday and are extremely concerned. This is basically what we feared would happen if the department did not act immediately to depopulate the jails,” Ramirez said.
“We are extremely concerned about the fact the individual who tested positive was housed in the barracks,” Ramirez said. “Our concern is that that individual may have interacted with several people who at this point could potentially be experiencing symptoms .”
She said the ACLU created a hotline for people inside the jail to collect-call the liberties union to glean information about what’s happening inside.
“Right now we are in touch with a few individuals who are housed in the medical [unit] at Theo Lacy and we have spoken to the [Sheriff’s department] about increasing access to cleaning supplies,” Ramirez said.
Reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this story.