County says geo-mapping system mistakenly attributed Pitchess Detention Center outbreak to Val Verde community

This Signal file photo shows Pitchess Detention Center.
This Signal file photo shows Pitchess Detention Center.

By Tammy Murga & Caleb Lunetta

A geo-mapping system mistakenly attributed a significant spike of COVID-19 cases to the Val Verde community rather than a correctional facility outbreak in neighboring Castaic, Los Angeles County officials said Thursday night.

Public Health officials acknowledged the labeling issue in response to questions from The Signal’s reports Wednesday, which cited Public Health officials attributing an outbreak at the Pitchess Detention Center to neighboring Val Verde. Public Health officials still had the numbers attributed to Val Verde on Thursday’s daily media briefing; however, a representative from county Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office clarified the discrepancy in an email late Thursday. 

Pitchess Detention Center is a campus in Castaic with four jails and an inmate population more than twice the size of Val Verde’s, according to data available on the Sheriff’s Department’s website.

“It is as we suspected, that the PDC numbers are folding into Val Verde numbers. This has to do with a statistical geo-mapping system the county uses that is not easily altered. There are only a few COVID positive cases in Val Verde,” Stephanie English, senior field deputy for Barger, whose 5th District includes the Santa Clarita Valley, said in a prepared statement.  

DPH officials will further clarify Friday, English added. Sheriff’s Department officials Thursday deferred comment to the Public Health Department. 

DPH officials, using Tuesday’s reported sum of Val Verde confirmed cases, said Wednesday that of the 92 Val Verde cases, 88 came from Pitchess and the North County Correctional Facility. 

On Thursday, the department reported NCCF, the maximum-security jail located on Pitchess Detention Center’s campus, had two staff members and 103 inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19, while Pitchess had six other staff members and 15 inmates with the virus, bringing the total number of jail-related cases to 126, including staff. 

Pitchess Detention Center has an average of 8,000 inmates under normal circumstances.

On the Sheriff’s Department website page devoted to COVID-19 updates and designed to update residents about which facilities had isolated inmates due to COVID-19, neither Pitchess Detention Center nor North County Correctional Facility were listed as sites with confirmed cases.

“Isolated” status, according to the LASD website, is designated for inmates who have tested positive, are awaiting results, have a temperature of 100.4 or higher, and/or are exhibiting certain flu-like symptoms consistent with an upper respiratory infection. It is unclear whether the inmates who test positive at Pitchess are then transferred to a county-run hospital elsewhere. 

PDC-North, South and North County Correctional Facility did have a total of 1,915 inmates in quarantine, meaning that they are known to have come in close contact with a person under observation.

The DPH did not respond for comment when asked for a breakdown of how many cases came from the jail and how many came from the estimated 3,000 Val Verde residents. 

As of Thursday, there were 118 confirmed cases in Val Verde and 118 inmates confirmed as positive between the NCCF and PDC; however, questions about how many new cases were calculated into Val Verde’s total on Thursday were left unanswered by DPH officials.

Val Verde community speaks out about the spike

After seeing the continued spikes in confirmed COVID-19 cases listed under the Val Verde community and later learning of their attribution to the Castaic jail, some residents and officials representing the area have raised concerns and have questioned the tallies. 

“We started spreading the word about the false identifications, and we are all kind of breathing a sigh of relief knowing that we’re not in as dire a condition as we thought,” said Jeremiah Dockray, one of the trustees for Region 2, Val Verde’s region on the Castaic Area Town Council. “But the only problem is that we’re now upset because it damages the community by making us less able to trust each other and trust what we’re hearing.” 

Some residents in the Castaic and Val Verde areas have tried to find their own answers to the increase in cases in Val Verde, which saw its highest spike on Monday after jumping from 63 to 92 confirmed diagnoses, according to DPH’s data. 

Some speculated the increase could be related to large gatherings, baby sitting, birthday parties and even a funeral in mid-April amid stay-at-home directives. However, it remains unconfirmed whether these events, which would have broken the stay-at-home order, had even taken place.

At least one Val Verde resident said Wednesday she believed the community was playing its part in adhering to quarantining directives and believed the spike in COVID-19 cases listed under the tight-knit community’s name has only caused fear.

“Here in Val Verde, mostly everybody is staying home, and those who go out wear masks. And I haven’t seen that there’s been parties or large gatherings, not even at the park. I think those numbers are false, or they’re misreporting, and people are thinking there’s a lot of cases here,” said the resident, who works at Fast Stop Country Market but wished to remain unidentified. 

Dockray said the jail is not a facility considered to be a part of the Val Verde community. 

“I’ve never considered Pitchess a part of Val Verde … I’ve lived in Val Verde for six years now,” said Dockray. “We have always known about the detention center … but there’s never been any sort of lumping us together.” 

“I mean, who would lump a detention center with a regular community in any fashion? I mean, it’s a completely different living situation for all of the people detained there. Obviously, it’s much easier to spread there. It’s understandable and tragic that that is happening there,” Dockray added.

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