Tuesday, October 19, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 33

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on May 13th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 11 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 11

Lompoc prison has worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country, local officials ask for answers

By Malea Martin

The Bureau of Prisons updated its COVID-19 resource webpage over the weekend to reflect hundreds of newly confirmed coronavirus cases at the Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution, reporting 891 total positive inmate cases as of May 11.

While the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department began reporting the spike in cases on May 6, as of May 8, the Bureau of Prisons still stated on their website that there were only 33 positive inmate cases. That day, the county reported 582 cases, 310 more than the day before.

At a May 8 press briefing, county officials attributed the increase to the bureau’s effort to test all inmates. Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg said that 70 percent of those tested at the prison were positive, though many did not display any symptoms.

U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) told the Sun that his office spoke with Bureau of Prisons staff and found out the prison is only conducting universal testing in the low-security federal correctional institution (FCI), and not in the medium-security U.S. penitentiary (USP). The FCI currently holds 1,162 incarcerated people, and the USP holds 1,542. 

Bureau representative Justin Long told the Sun in a May 12 email that while the FCI has 891 cases (plus 20 recovered), the penitentiary has 21 positive inmates (plus 93 recovered). Long attributed this discrepancy to the prison’s “effective strategic response” within the penitentiary.

“The number of positive cases have significantly reduced at the USP, and through mass testing and cohort isolation at the FCI, an equally high recovery rate is anticipated, thus shortening the time span of the virus infection within the institution,” Long wrote.

The federal correctional institution’s spike in positive cases occurred after universal testing was introduced. While the penitentiary’s numbers are much lower, Carbajal said its inmates haven’t received universal testing yet, so it’s difficult to know how many of them are truly COVID-19 positive.

As far as the number of inmates currently hospitalized or in the ICU, Ansorg stated at the May 8 briefing that “the Bureau of Prisons does not want me to convey this information.” A representative of Lompoc Valley Medical Center—where inmates were reportedly being treated—told the Sun on May 5 that they “are no longer releasing those numbers.”

However, Carbajal said that his staff, along with staff from Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein’s offices, were informed in a conference call with BOP staff that “12 to 14” inmates from the prison were hospitalized as of May 10 and that one is in the ICU. 

Carbajal said that his staff also learned that two inmates have died so far in connection with the Lompoc prison outbreak. But the Bureau of Prisons’ website reported the number of inmate deaths as zero on May 12.

County officials addressed discrepancies with the numbers at the May 8 conference. 

“We report the numbers that our disease control team are able to process by noon of any given day,” Ansorg said. “We are reporting total cases over the course of the outbreak.”

In response to a question about the prison rejecting the county’s offer to donate personal protective equipment, 2nd District County Supervisor Gregg Hart said, “I have been contacted by many members of families of people who are in the prison and they’re very concerned about their loved one’s medical situation. … We want to know what’s going on in the prison, and we have not been able to get adequate answers.”

Carbajal expressed a similar frustration. Together, Carbajal, Harris, and Feinstein penned two letters to bureau leadership in April and didn’t receive a response until May 7. 

The prison’s response letter, which Carbajal shared with the Sun, addressed concerns regarding personal protective equipment, stating that “despite media reports to the contrary, bureau institutions nationwide have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment.”

“I appreciate finally, after two letters, getting a formal response from the director of the bureau,” Carbajal said. 

But Carbajal also said that the letter didn’t address some of his main concerns and questions, such as implementing a 50- to 100-bed field hospital. 

Rather, the response reiterated “what we have read in the media,” Carbajal said. 

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