Santa Rita Jail COVID-19 cases soar past 100; judge notes urgent situation

The number of positive COVID-19 cases more than doubled overnight, from 41 to 101 inmates, lawyers representing Alameda County told a federal magistrate on Friday. 

Attorney Gregory Thomas also told U.S. Magistrate Nathanael Cousins that the outbreak stemmed from two units that house inmates who work in the kitchen and laundry, as well as the inmates locked in the maximum-security section.

Cousins said the conditions at Santa Rita "have gotten worse." He had also said the hearing was "urgent."

The cases include 41 inmates in unit 25, where the kitchen and laundry workers live, and 56 inmates from unit 22, which is maximum security. 

The first case was reported on July 9, stemming from the kitchen and which spread from the dorms, Thomas said. 

Only one of the inmates so far has gone to the hospital and has since returned, Thomas noted, and no one has died.

Of the total inmates who tested positive, 40 are federal detainees, and 61 are inmates charged by the state. 

As of Friday, there were 1,884 inmates at Santa Rita, 404 of them are federal detainees, an attorney for the Department of Justice said. 

Alameda County health public officials are still trying to determine how the first case got into the jail.

Jeffrey Bornstein, whose firm, Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grumsfeld, is suing the jail over the care of mentally ill inmates, raised the possibility that an outside food vendor, Aramark, might have brought the virus into the kitchen. Bornstein said he has also heard stories of new bookings not being quarantined when they first arrive. 

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

Inmate Gil Martinez told KTVU by phone inside the jail on Friday that he works in the kitchen and saw several Aramark employees not wearing masks, or wearing them down on their chins. He is one of the federal inmates who has tested positive for coronavirus, saying he felt congested and tired, but wasn’t experiencing any serious symptoms.

Martinez said that Deputy Oscar Rocha, who is one of the nine current employees at Santa Rita to also have tested positive for coronarivus, worked in the kitchen. Rocha was fighting for his life earlier, but his wife has since said he's on the mend. 

Martinez acknowledged that he also doesn’t always wear his mask. 

Martinez said he wears a mask when he’s working in the kitchen, but takes it off when he’s relaxing in his dorm-style bunk with nine others on beds, which he said are spaced three feet apart from each other. He’s been encouraged to wear one, he said, but having one on at all times is not mandated. 

A call to Aramark about its role in the kitchen was not returned. 

Thomas, the attorney representing Alameda County, took great issue with the claim about Aramark workers, saying it was simply an allegation. He mentioned several times that he was upset the hearing was made public on such short notice. He said he didn't want unsubstantiated rumors to be spread. 

But he did concede that not everyone may be wearing masks 100% of the time. 

“Our policy is that no one gets into the jail without a mask,” Thomas said. “Are there instances of noncompliance? Yes, of course.”

He also said that the sheriff’s office is “increasing its mask discipline policy for its own staff.” And he said that deputies would not be requiring inmates to wear masks when they venture out into general population areas. 

Bornstein said he hopes that the staff mask policy is enforced, and he urged for more robust testing procedures to take place.

He said he asked for the hearing to be public because otherwise what's occurring at Santa Rita is so important to the wider community and shedding a light on the rising cases should not be kept a secret. 

“It’s critically important that more tests be given to incarcerated people and not less,” Bornstein said. “Otherwise we’re going to have San Quentin all over again.”

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