As jail cases spike, sheriff says inmates deliberately infected themselves with coronavirus

Cases of COVID-19 in the Los Angeles County jail system have spiked by nearly 60% in the span of a week, according to numbers reported today by Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

But before he shared that 357 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus since the outbreak began and nearly 40% of the population is in quarantine to prevent further spread, the sheriff played video footage of inmates at the North County Correctional Facility passing around and drinking from a shared bottle.

That footage from mid April and other video surveillance “show inmates deliberately intending to infect themselves with the COVID-19 virus,” Villanueva said.

The sheriff said the bottle was filled with hot water. He believed inmates were passing it around to try to infect themselves and also trying to raise their temperature in the moments before a nurse came to do temperature check.

In the footage, more than a dozen inmates could be seen standing in close proximity to one another, ignoring social distancing guidelines, as others milled about the common area of the jail module. Other video footage showed inmates sniffing a common mask, Villanueva said.

“As a result of this behavior … 21 inmates tested positive … within a week,” the sheriff told reporters.

The North County Correctional Facility in Saugus had “extremely few cases … then all of a sudden (the numbers) just shot up overnight,” he said.

The new cases surprised authorities at a facility that has limited traffic compared with other county jails.

“It’s sad to think that someone would try to deliberately expose themselves to COVID-19,” Villanueva said.

Inmates mistakenly believed that by becoming infected, they could force authorities to release more individuals from custody, according to the sheriff, who told reporters, “That’s not gonna happen.”

More than 5,000 inmates have been released from county jails to slow the spread of the coronavirus, bringing the population down from roughly 17,000 to about 11,700 individuals currently.

“We’ve done everything within our power to … prevent the spread of COVID-19 within our jail system,” Villanueva said.

The sheriff did not give a breakdown by jail facility, but the North County Correctional Facility had 166 reported cases, or nearly half of the total, according to a breakdown provided by the Department of Public Health as of Sunday.

The spike in positive cases in the jails comes as public health orders are being relaxed in the outside world based on a slowdown in overall cases.

Asked about the jump in just a week’s time, Villanueva pointed out that 117 inmates have recovered and been returned to the general population after twice testing negative. He drew a comparison between a net 240 current cases and earlier numbers, but could not seem to point to a specific reason for the dramatic increase.

He did note that the quarantine numbers fluctuate by as many as 1,000 inmates in a single day as custody officials move to quarantine or isolate anyone who shares a module with someone who tests positive. Villanueva called the quarantine numbers “not exactly indicative of the spread.”

Testing is now being done at booking to further limit the spread in the jails.

Among department employees, there are 107 positive cases and 320 deputies and non-sworn personnel have been quarantined. A total of 927 have recovered and returned to duty, according to the sheriff.

Villanueva said it was possible that criminal charges would be pursued against inmates seeking to spread the infection.

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