The state Department of Health is still contact tracing and investigating to determine if inmates who were released from the Oahu Community Correctional Center as the coronavirus spread through the facility ended up infecting other people after they were released, lawmakers were told Friday.

The House Committee on Human Services and Homelessness held a hearing Friday focused mostly on how vulnerable populations are faring during the pandemic, including the inmates who were released from OCCC. The overcrowded jail is now the site of the largest infection cluster in the state, with 256 inmates and 53 staff testing positive as of Friday afternoon.

The state Supreme Court this month established an expedited release program for lower-risk, non-violent inmates at OCCC and other jails across the state in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the close quarters of the jails, and the correctional system had released 214 prisoners under that program as of Thursday.

Human Services Committee Chairwoman Joy San Buenaventura asked at the Friday hearing if all of the inmates are tested before they are released, and Eddie Mersereau, DOH’s deputy director of behavioral health, said that some refuse to take the test.

Rep Joy San Buenaventura Vice Chair Legislature1
State Rep. Joy San Buenaventura questioned whether all OCCC inmates are tested for COVID-19 before they are released. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Inmates cannot be released under the Supreme Court orders if they have tested positive for COVID-19 or if they are awaiting the results of a test, but not everyone who is released is covered by that order, Mersereau said.

An unknown number of inmates were released from OCCC in recent weeks in the normal course of business as the prisoners completed their sentences or posted bail, and those prisoners are not subject to the restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court order.

San Buenaventura asked if the COVID-19 outbreak at the Institute for Human Services has been linked to an inmate, and was told the state Department of Health is still completing the contact tracing and investigation into that cluster.

“However, there were individuals who went into some treatment facilities following their release from OCCC, and we have noted that there may be some transmission there that occurred after that, and again, these may have left before the extent of the transmission was known within OCCC,” said Dr. Amy Curtis, division chief of the adult mental health division of the state Department of Health.

Mersereau said those halfway house or treatment program infections occurred in the last four to six weeks, and are still under investigation.

“To be really frank, that is one of the concerns about releasing folks from a facility that has that level of spread within the facility, until you know … that those individuals are no longer infectious to the broader community,” he said. Discussions on that issue are underway between the state attorney general and Gov. David Ige’s staff, he said.

San Buenaventura observed there is huge interest in the court-ordered inmate releases, and said “transparency is better than hiding it under the rug and blaming somebody else, so if you folks are able to trace to an inmate release, then it’s best that the public know and be forewarned.”

State Rep. Nadine Nakamura said she was required to isolate for two weeks after she came into contact with someone who had COVID-19 in keeping with federal guidelines, and wondered why released jail inmates might not be subject to the same requirements.

She suggested the Supreme Court court might amend its orders or the governor might use his emergency executive powers to require consistency.

State Rep. Bert Kobayashi was more blunt, telling Mersereau that “you might have to think about being tougher. This is an emergency situation, you have an emergency declaration, I don’t see why you should not use that declaration to push inmates who refuse testing to get tested.”

Kobayashi added that “your rights end where my rights begin, so no one really has a right to infect others.”

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