A Lompoc prison inmate has died from the coronavirus/COVID-19 as local public officials express concern and talk contingency plans related to the ongoing outbreak at the federal facility and its impact in the community.
Inmate Oliver M. Boling, 66, went into respiratory failure at the U.S. Penitentiary on Sunday and was transported to an unspecified local hospital, according to a Bureau of Prisons statement released Friday night.
While at the hospital, Boling tested positive for COVID-19, and his condition declined Tuesday, leading doctors to place him on a ventilator.
He was pronounced dead on Friday, BOP officials said. The death was not mentioned during Santa Barbara County officials’ briefing late Friday afternoon.
Boling was sentenced in the District of Columbia to spend more than 71 years for sodomy and assault with a deadly weapon, prison breach, petty larceny and armed robbery. He had been in custody at USP Lompoc since May 7, 2018.
As of Friday, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department reported that the Lompoc federal prison outbreak had grown to 80 confirmed cases among inmates and 30 for staff members.
“The ongoing outbreak at the federal prison is a very serious concern to the Public Health Department,” said Van Do-Reynoso, director of the Public Health Department.
The death of an inmate pushes the countywide total to four, with the total cases reported at 373 on Friday.
News of the death came among discussions of using an alternative care site at Cal Poly as a backup medical facility for civilians if the Lompoc federal prison outbreak fills local hospital beds.
Republican Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham sent a letter to county Public Health Department leaders about the contingency plan while awaiting Army Corps of Engineers creation of a field hospital on prison grounds.
“In these two weeks, of course, there is a chance that the local hospitals could be overrun with patients from the prison (both inmates and workers),” wrote Cunningham, whose 35th Assembly District includes the Lompoc Valley.
As of Tuesday, there were only two open Critical Care Unit beds at Lompoc Valley Medical Center, Cunningham said.
“This situation requires a contingency plan in the event the prison outbreak overwhelms the local capacity before the Army Corps of Engineers stands up the field hospital on prison grounds,” Cunningham said.
San Luis Obispo County Administrative Officer Wade Horton agreed that nonprisoner, noncritical patients from northern Santa Barbara County hospitals could use the alternative care site on the Cal Poly campus, Cunningham said.
Hospitals in San Luis Obispo County also could accept some COVID-19 patients needing critical care, the assemblyman said.
“I suggest that we adopt this as a tentative contingency plan, to be modified with appropriate input from the health administrators at our local hospitals,” he said, adding that he has talked to Lompoc hospital and Marian Regional Medical Center representatives. “They know that my office stands ready to help implement a contingency plan if the situation at the prison deteriorates further.”
The Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex reported its first cases involving two inmates and a staff member on March 30.
BOP officials pinpointed all cases at USP, suggesting that other facilities at the Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex remained free of COVID-19. However, reports from those familiar with what’s going on inside the site say ill inmates were moved to USP. That suggests the outbreak had not been contained to one facility.
After weeks of regular updates, the BOP on Thursday stopped updating Lompoc’s numbers on its website and apparently has tried to squash local officials from speaking out, citing safety of staff and inmates after recent news articles.
“Specifically, these articles released information that identified the number of inmates who are currently at the local hospitals and the level of care they receive,” the letter stated. “These articles have also included information concerning internal controls established by our agency to respond and alleviate the issue, which would not normally be publicly disclosed.”
The outbreak has raised a number of concerns about BOP handling of the matter amid reports about at least one positive COVID-19 inmate’s release, inadequate personal protective equipment and more.
The handling has raised concerns among Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne, who saw her city’s number rise until county leaders agreed to note the community tally separately from the prison.
“I believe the federal Bureau of Prisons has failed at appropriately addressing the epicenter of the outbreak of COVID-19 by not aggressively responding to the initial three cases reported on March 30,” Osborne said. “If they had followed appropriate pandemic protocols early and aggressively, this outbreak could have been prevented or at least mitigated.
“This is not a black swan event as it is a congregate living facility — a known factor in COVID-19 outbreaks.”
County Public Health Department representatives appeared hesitant to criticize prison staff, while later heaping praise on county jail staff where just one inmate has tested positive.
Nicholas Clay, county Emergency Medical Services director, noted the long relationship the county has had in working with the prison.
“They continue to be a valuable and willing partner in managing the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Clay said, spelling out a three-prong approach. “For the past week, we have partnered with the prison to offer symptomatic staff testing for COVID-19. We continue to work on modeling with draft estimates showing numbers that continue grow over the next few weeks. As modeling gets refined, this projection may change.
“Additionally, we are consulting with prison leadership on how to identify opportunities to flatten their own curve. But given the layout, this is a challenging scenario even with the best mitigation efforts in place.”
An on-site field hospital would reduce challenges of moving inmates to hospital locations, which can require correctional officers to remain for security.
But Clay could not say Friday night, beyond “the immediate future,” when the mobile field hospital would open.
How the prison outbreak began remains unknown, and Do-Reynoso said the focus for now involves stemming the growth, ensuring it’s linear rather than exponential.
“We have an astounding partnership with the prison leadership. We are lock-step in supporting them, and they are very open to guidance and following them,” Do-Reynoso said. “They have a really good staff, good leadership, and this is a partnership in terms of the disease containment.”