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With Lompoc prison a potential reopening roadblock, frustrated SB County seeks answers from Bureau of Prisons

Gregg Hart Lompoc prison
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Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart says the Federal Bureau of Prisons is not giving "adequate answers" about how it is handling the Lompoc prison outbreak.

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - Santa Barbara County Public Health reported 311 new confirmed coronavirus cases Friday. Only one was from the community.

The other 310, Public Health says, are current cases from the ongoing outbreak at the Federal Correctional Complex in Lompoc.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons numbers are more staggering, with more than 900 inmates testing positive at some point at the complex. Public Health is reporting a lower number because it compiles data earlier in the day and takes into account current cases, not the total number of sick people.

Those numbers are exploding this week after the minimum-security prison, known as the Federal Correctional Instituion (FCI), began testing 100 percent of inmates. The Federal Bureau of Prisons says the medium-security prison at the complex--known as the United States Penitentiary, Lompoc (USP)--does not have plans for universal testing at this time.

“Our county total testing numbers and positive cases are much higher than if we only counted the general county population,” said Dr. Henning Ansorg, the County’s Public Health Officer.

Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart said Friday that Public Health has tried to assist the prison to manage the outbreak, only to be "consistently rebuffed" by prison authorities.

Dr. Ansorg reports the "vast majority" of prisoners testing positive had had little or no symptoms. But Hart says several family members of current inmates have reached out to him, concerned about their loved ones' health.

“Every single man who’s in that prison is a father, a son, a brother or a grandfather,” Hart said. “And they have loving families at home that are very concerned about them. And we want to know what’s going on at the prison, and we have not been able to get adequate answers.”

The public is getting fewer answers, too. County Public Health says the Bureau of Prisons does not want the County to disclose how many local hospitalized patients are prison inmates or staff.

Hart then compared the prison situation to the local Santa Barbara County jail, where there is no coronavirus outbreak.

“I think that it is striking that the difference between the work that Sheriff [Bill] Brown and Chief [Vincent] Wasilewski in the Santa Barbara main jail, to keep our situation under control and in a safe environment for the prisoners in our jail,” he said. “And I would hope that the prison in Lompoc could achieve the same results, as soon as possible.”

The prison could create more economic hurdles for Santa Barbara County, too. Under Gov. Newsom's current state reopening plan, counties must meet certain criteria before more businesses can reopen and health orders can be relaxed.

One current requirement Hart mentioned specifically is that a California county must go 14 days without a COVID-19 related death, something Santa Barbara County has not done since the pandemic began.

Hart expressed concern that the County has no jurisdiction over how the outbreak is handled at the federally-controlled prison, but still includes the prison's numbers.

“We are responsible for the tracking, monitor and reporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths at the prison, but have no authority to resolve the problem,” Hart said.

California lawmakers already sent a letter to the Bureau of Prisons and are now reaching out, Hart says, to the state government to try to somehow separate Santa Barbara County's numbers from the prison's in order to prevent the County from being held back from reopening.

Dr. Ansorg says, in "encouraging" news, that County hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions are stable. He also says hospitals are currently below capacity, even with elective surgeries and procedures taking place once again.

Article Topic Follows: Coronavirus

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Ryan Fish

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