Nearly 100 Orange County jail inmates have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, marking an outbreak that’s raising red flags for the County employees union for an alleged lack of personal protective equipment against the virus. 

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At the beginning of the month, there were five confirmed virus cases in the jails. As of Tuesday, there were 96 confirmed cases.

During Tuesday’s OC Supervisors meeting, Sheriff Don Barnes said testing has been increased in the jails.

The sudden increase comes as the County employee union is demanding more protective gear for jailhouse workers.

“The County has received considerable direct economic aid through the CARES Act funding to address COVID-related expenses. There is no more important COVID-related expense than providing for the safety and protection of the workers required to perform high hazard tasks that expose them to significant risks,” reads an April 27 letter from Charles Barfield, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Barfield sent the letter to County CEO Frank Kim as a follow up to Barfield’s April 3 letter.

“Sufficient time has elapsed for the County to secure and provide sufficient PPE,” reads the letter. “Further, in light of the significant COVID-19 outbreak in the jails, OCEA demands that the County provide voluntary COVID-19 testing to all OCEA-represented employees working in correctional facilities. 

The CEO’s office didn’t respond to the letter before publishing.

Fresh inmates are automatically quarantined for up to two weeks so staff can monitor people for any virus symptoms. 

Meanwhile, Barnes said the jailhouse population has decreased by 45 percent since the beginning of March. 

“It could be one of the most significant decreases,” Barnes told County Supervisors. 

He said there were 2,911 people in jail as of Tuesday. 

“That’s down from just over 5,300 almost two months ago,” Barnes said. 

He said the sheriff’s department has released 403 people early, 137 of whom are medically vulnerable. 

Barnes noted the people he released are “low-level, already sentenced individuals.” 

The courts, working in conjunction with the sheriff,  district attorney and the public defender, also released 433 people, Barnes said. 

He said there’s a review process “to vet through those who are most likely to be low-risk low-offenders. Not everybody gets released.” 

Supervisor Andrew Do asked Barnes about the number of inmates released, noting the math didn’t add up. 

Barnes said the difference is because of people who finished their jail sentences naturally and because the courts are largely closed. 

“Because the courts are closed, those numbers are down,” Barnes said. “The number coming in the front door of the jail is much less than those released through the back of the jail, serving their full sentences.” 

Barfield emailed OCEA members an update Tuesday about the lack of PPE for jailhouse staff. 

“The recent spike in the number of confirmed COVID-19 case at the jails justifies our deep concerns,” reads the email. “The County has had plenty of time. There is no more important COVID-related expense than providing for the safety and protection of the workers to perform high hazard tasks.”  

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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