How big is the COVID-19 outbreak that began this week at Susanville’s prisons? The answer to that question depends on your source of information.
As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11, Lassencares.org, the county’s COVID-19 reporting agency, reports 100 active cases at High Desert State Prison and four recovered cases. The website also reports eight active cases at the Federal Correctional Institution, Herlong with four recovered cases.
But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports 228 active cases and 224 new cases within the last 14 days at HDSP, as of 5:20 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12.
Back in June, a COVID-19 outbreak at the local prisons raised community concerns. Dr. Kenneth Korver, Lassen County’s Public Health Officer, declared an emergency June 30, 2020. On June 25, Brian Dahle, California First District State Senator, wrote, “It is our understanding that the outbreak at CCC began with a handful of inmates transferred from San Quentin State Prison, who had recent negative tests but were not quarantined upon transfer … ”
Richard Egan, the public information officer for the county’s incident command team, did not respond for comment by deadline.
A public information officer at HDSP referred lassennews.com to Dana Simas, press secretary for CDCR for comment via email.
Simas responded, “CDCR and California Correctional Health Care Services (court-appointed Federal Receiver) are immediately responding to the increase in positive COVID-19 cases at High Desert State Prison. This includes mass testing of the incarcerated population, and as our protocol outlines, increasing mandatory staff testing to every week when a spike in cases is reported, creating additional isolation and quarantine space for those who test positive or are identified as a close contact and providing N95 masks and other personal protective equipment for all those in isolation and quarantine units.
“Prior to recent positive test results, HDSP established an Incident Command Post to ensure communication and coordination with custody/operations, health care, and community partners. The ICP has coordinated with the Lassen County Department of Public Health on a daily basis since July.
“The facility is following public health and health care guidance for the incarcerated population in accordance with CCHCS guidance. Additionally, it is following all COVID-19 protocols for screening employees, social distancing and additional sanitation of bathrooms and other common areas.
“Movement of staff and incarcerated persons within the institution has been limited to an as-needed basis to help mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19. The incarcerated population and staff are required to wear a facial barrier when moving around the institution. CDCR custody staff are being restricted from working in multiple housing units in an effort to mitigate potential spread.
“The well-being and safety of the incarcerated population and staff within CDCR and CCHCS is our top priority. CDCR and CCHCS will continue to work closely with the court-appointed Federal Receiver and public health experts to address COVID-19 at HDSP.”
Lassennews.com asked Simas about the source of the outbreak, and she referred us to Elizabeth Gransee of the CDCR Correctional Health Care Services. Gransee did not respond to our questions via email by deadline. We wanted to know the source of the outbreak, were infected inmates again transferred to Lassen County prisons, does the transmission seem to be from staff to inmates or from inmates to staff and does CDCR have a handle on the outbreak because the prisons are major employers in both Lassen and Plumas counties where the COVID-19 infection numbers are also sharply higher this week.
Concerns from family members
One inmate family member (name withheld) wrote us, “Good morning … I have a loved one held at High Desert State Prison. I am bringing to your attention the current COVID outbreak happening at HDSP. Thursday they got their first two confirmed cases, as of this morning there are now 162 cases. This is due to transfers and staff bringing in the virus. This is not only becoming dangerous for our loved ones inside as many are high risk, but also to the community since staff will continue to go in and out of High Desert and the community. Lassen and High Desert had been doing great keeping the numbers down, but because of CDCR’s negligence, cases are on the rise. I’m afraid if we don’t bring light to this, cases will only continue to rise in and out of High Desert. Please help us have our voices heard for the sake of everyone’s safety. Thank you.”
Another family member (name withheld) wrote, “With the escalating COVID cases in High Desert State Prison, is CDCR communicating with the community? Officers and staff come and go into the community.”