At least 51 inmates and corrections staff at the Mendocino County Jail have now tested positive for COVID-19 in the first widespread outbreak at the jail, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.
The newly identified infections are the result of an effort by Mendocino County health officials to test nearly all inmates and jail employees over the weekend after 17 inmates and three staff were found to have contracted the coronavirus last week.
Five additional jail employees have tested positive since then, said Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall.
As of Thursday morning, the sheriff’s office was waiting to learn the complete breakout for the 51 total cases.
The first sign the virus had spread to the jail came Dec. 19, when a corrections deputy reported his positive test to jail administrators. But Kendall said the source of the outbreak remains unclear.
The jail has had virus protocols in place since the start of the pandemic, Kendall said, including initially quarantining new inmates once they’re booked. Still, between deputies, corrections staff and arriving inmates, around 50 people enter the jail each day, he said.
“You can be right 99 out of 100 times, but it just takes one mistake,” Kendall said.
No inmates or employees have become seriously ill or been hospitalized, Kendall said. And jail medical staff are closely monitoring inmates in higher-risk groups for the virus.
The outbreak at the jail in Ukiah corresponds with an ongoing surge in Mendocino County and across the state. Over the past two weeks, the county is averaging 26 new infections each day, up from six a day in early November, according to state data.
In Sonoma County, officials on Wednesday revealed an unprecedented spike in cases at the county jail this month. Since Nov. 30, 18 inmates at the facility have tested positive, making up about 30% of the 61 inmates at the facility who have tested positive for the virus since the onset of the pandemic in mid-March.
The Mendocino County outbreak is the second infiltration of COVID-19 into the jail, which had at least one inmate tested positive in August.
As of Thursday, about 60 inmates in two separate sections of the jail where cases had been detected were under quarantine, Kendall said. The initial 17 inmates who had tested positive have been placed in the same living quarters and kept apart from other inmates.
The jail currently houses about 250 inmates, down from around 300 prior to the pandemic, Kendall said. In an effort to prevent the virus from spreading in the facility, lower-level offenders continue to be released, which initially brought the total inmate population to under 200. But an uptick in crime as the pandemic has dragged on has steadily increased the number of people held in the jail.
The Mendocino County Health Department and jail staff plan to continue testing inmates twice a week until the outbreak is under control, Kendall said. They will then move to randomized surveillance testing, possibly throughout the rest of the pandemic, in hopes of preventing another large outbreak.