'Deeply concerning:' 40 Santa Rita Jail inmates test positive for coronavirus

A total of 40 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus at Santa Rita Jail and all of the cases stem from Housing Unit 25, where inmates work in the kitchen and laundry, KTVU has learned. 

Kara Janssen, whose firm filed a federal suit against the sheriff in 2018, told KTVU that she learned from counsel representing Alameda County that the inmates tested positive for the virus on Thursday afternoon. However, the jail's website did not accurately reflect that number, showing only six positive cases. 

A jail spokesperson later confirmed that 53 inmates were initially tested for the virus, 40 tested positive and 38 of them were asymptomatic.

As far as Janssen knew, no one was sick enough to be taken to the hospital.

In fact, Janssen said that she's been told no inmate has ever been sick enough to go to the hospital with coronavirus though some staff has, including deputy Oscar Rocha, who was on a ventilator and fighting for his life, though his wife said he seems to now be on the mend. Rocha had been working in the kitchen, inmates said. 

The inmates who tested positive are now all being housed together and those who tested negative are being "medically isolated" by themselves and will have to be retested, Janssen said she was told. 

"This would certainly be one of the highest number of cases that I think we've seen at once," Janssen said. "This is deeply concerning. It just goes to show the need for constant vigilance on this. There is not a minute you can let up." 

Christopher Andrews is one of the 40 inmates who tested positive.

His wife, Jessica Andrews in Castro Valley, said her husband called her on Friday to say that his pod, Unit 25, was moved to a dorm next door that morning. Later that night, he was moved back into Unit 25 and he told her that deputies said that they had been accidentally mixed with another group.

"He said the yellows and the blues got mixed together," she said. 

Though he tested positive, Andrews told his wife that he simply feels tired and has been resting back in his dorm with others in Unit 25.

Janssen said she is now trying to figure out how COVID-19 got into Unit 25; previously, she was unaware that there had been any cases in that pod. 

Sgt. Tya Modeste, a spokesperson for the jail, said the outbreak traced it back to one inmate, but because that inmate was in a part of the jail that doesn’t house new intakes, they don't have any theories as to how that person may have come into contact with COVID-19.

"But we are continuing to do extreme education around it and encouraging the inmates to wear the face coverings that they are provided on a regular basis," Modeste said. 

Janssen's firm's suit against the jail is seeking better care for mentally ill inmates. But as a result of negotiations with the county, a federal judge mandated that the sheriff post daily coronavirus updates for the public. 

In nearby Marin County, 12 inmates have so far died at San Quentin State Prison from coronavirus, stemming from a similar type of outbreak.

The outbreak occurred after 121 inmates from the California Institution for Men in Chino were transferred to San Quentin in May because of an outbreak in Chino. The prisoners who were transferred were not tested for the virus.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom approved the early release of more than 8,000 nonviolent inmates with less than a year to go on their sentence from state prison.

KTVU's Andre Senior contributed to this report. 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez