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California

First L.A. County inmate tests positive for coronavirus infection

Twin Towers
Bunk beds are spread throughout a common area at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

An inmate and four people who work in the Los Angeles County jails have tested positive for the coronavirus infection, heightening fears that the disease could spread quickly in the overcrowded jail system.

The inmate, who was at Twin Towers Correctional Facility, displayed symptoms Thursday and was moved to the jail’s Correctional Treatment Center for isolation, Correctional Health Director Jackie Clark said. His test came back positive over the weekend, and he is now at L.A. County-USC Medical Center.

The inmate had been held in a one-man cell in a “high observation housing” area reserved for mentally ill inmates. About 16 others in that housing area were being quarantined, with staff monitoring them regularly with temperature checks, Clark said. She added that classes and therapy sessions for that group were halted about three weeks ago to minimize the risk of exposure.

“We don’t have a huge concern for the 16 that’s in quarantine,” she said. Clark said it’s likely the inmate was exposed in the jail, where he’s been housed since about December. Officials are working to track his movements and determine exactly where he was exposed and by whom.

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Four people who work in the jails — a deputy, a custody assistant, a nursing assistant and a doctor — also have tested positive for the coronavirus, Clark said. The doctor, a contractor, had not worked in the jails for weeks, but notified Correctional Health Services that he had been exposed elsewhere and would not be scheduled to return.

Clark said the other three staff members stayed home when they started feeling ill and subsequently tested positive. “None of them came into work with a fever,” she said.

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told reporters Monday that two other Sheriff’s Department employees — one in the Court Services Division and the other in East Patrol Division — have tested positive. Seven employees had either tested negative or were waiting on results, he said.

More than 40 inmates have been tested for the coronavirus and nine tests are pending, Clark said.

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The Sheriff’s Department has taken steps in recent weeks to cut the jail population, releasing inmates with fewer than 30 days of jail time left to serve, and citing, instead of arresting, people whose alleged misdemeanor offenses carry a bail of less than $50,000. That doesn’t include people suspected of domestic violence. L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey moved last week to release hundreds more pretrial detainees accused of nonviolent crimes.

As of Friday, there were fewer than 14,500 inmates in the jails, which typically house about 17,000 people.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Kathryn Barger, meanwhile, ordered public health officials last week to examine conditions in the lockups to identify “all necessary and appropriate measures” to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, among inmates and staff.

Clark said officials are checking the temperatures of anyone who enters the treatment center. She said there had been discussions about temperature scanning everyone entering the jails, but ultimately officials decided it would cause more harm than good by creating bottlenecks at the more than 40 points of entry into the buildings.

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“It’s not appropriate for me to deploy healthcare staff to take temperatures of people coming,” she said. “I have my healthcare staff taking care of people in the jail that need healthcare.”

Clark said 42 single cells are available to treat people should a surge of patients overwhelm the roughly 200-bed treatment center.

Villanueva said last week that cleaning crews have “doubled up on all the cleaning protocols” and that an ongoing education campaign is provided in English and Spanish.

He said every inmate has access to soap and running water “at all times, in every single cell,” but that some inmates with mental illness may not want to adhere to hygiene standards.

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Several inmates told The Times in interviews last week, however, that they did not have adequate access to soap or cleaning supplies.

“Sometimes we get it; sometimes we don’t,” Benedek Virag, who was moved from state prison to county jail last fall, said from Twin Towers. “It’s a crap shoot with that.”

Across the street at Men’s Central Jail, Joseph Clarino said some fellow inmates recently used torn bed sheets when toilet paper ran out.

Assistant Sheriff Bruce Chase told reporters Monday that his staff contacted inmates interviewed by The Times and has been regularly distributing additional cleaning supplies.

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“We don’t want anybody to feel like they don’t have access to soap or cleaning supplies,” he said. “If we do get any reports of inmates that don’t have adequate cleaning supplies or soap or feel like they’re in danger, we will reach out to them as we did today and try and make sure that they’re feeling comfortable and safe.”


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