By Elizabeth Marcellino, City News Service

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – Los Angeles County probation officers, public health clinicians, educators and others who work with youth in juvenile camps and halls held a town hall meeting today to reassure the public that precautions are being taken as coronavirus cases surge.

The juvenile facilities are held to the same health standards as county hospitals and clinics, according to health officials. Masks are mandatory, social distancing protocols are followed, and more frequent cleaning is scheduled, among other measures to limit spread.

However, the jump in community cases has found its way into juvenile halls and camps.

“I am very concerned with this latest surge,” said Mary Logan, the department’s chief nurse. “We have had a number of youth come in from the community who have tested positive, but thankfully most of the youth have not had any serious symptoms.”

Every minor admitted to a county juvenile facility goes immediately into quarantine, is assessed by medical personnel and also tested for the virus, Logan said. If they test positive, they are placed in medical isolation for 10 days.

As of last Thursday, 107 minors had tested positive for COVID-19, 40 of them while in probation’s care rather than at admission, according to a weekly department report. That represents roughly 20% of the total population of halls and camps on that date. In addition, there were 120 youth in quarantine due to possible exposure.

A total of 360 staff members have tested positive, though more than half of those work in field offices rather than detention facilities.

Logan said the positivity rate in facilities was 3.8% as of Monday.

Dr. Lello Tesema, director of population health at Correctional Health Services, said most of the transmission comes from staff.

“It’s not surprising that (as) we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in community transmission, we’re seeing that reflected in juvenile facilities,” Tesema said.

Youth at juvenile halls and camps have access to mental health services, both with staff on site and via virtual videoconferencing. There is a lot of stress, anxiety and apprehension among staff and youth, creating greater demand for those services, according to representatives from the Department of Mental Health.

Earlier in the pandemic, the Probation Department was managing family visits outdoors, but visitation has now been suspended under the most recent stay-at-home orders instituted by state and county public health officials.

However, youth, even those in quarantine, have access to all other services, including educational programming, college classes, calls with family and recreational activities, according to department officials.

In-person activities are held in smaller groups, typically by living unit, and much of the instruction is virtual, with a limited number of teachers and administrators on site.

“We’re going to continue for now with our virtual instruction and… our students have connectivity in the classrooms, and now we’re mostly done with connectivity in the living units,” said Los Angeles County Office of Education Chief Educational Programs Officer Maricela Ramirez. “Teachers are providing education to our students on a daily basis.”

Technology has resulted in more opportunities and access, a bit of a silver lining of the pandemic. This is true not only in terms of educational tools — telemedicine and virtual access to court hearings has also evolved out of necessity. Online tools have also been a boon to parent engagement, Ramirez said.

“We’ve seen some great transformations happen with technology,” Ramirez added, mentioning an all-sites assembly with a guest speaker as one example. “Whatever positive things are happening right now, we are taking note of, we are learning from, and we’ll continue to amplify it to provide access to our students and our families.”

One key way to limit the spread of the virus has been to release minors who need not be detained as a matter of public safety. The number of youth in probation facilities was already in decline prior to the pandemic, but has dropped precipitously since then, from 840 minors in custody in March to 458 as of Monday.

“That’s about a 45% reduction since the pandemic really hit in late February, early March,” said acting Chief Deputy Tom Faust, who oversees juvenile operations for the county’s Probation Department.

And the numbers continue to decrease, falling 9% from Dec. 11 to Dec. 18, according to the Probation Department update.

Asked whether the population in youth camps and halls would increase post-pandemic, Probation Deputy Chief Felicia Cotton said the goal would be to continue to limit the number to those who cannot safely be supported in the community. But the numbers now are lower than expected and could tick up slightly post-COVID, she said.

Department of Health Services Chief Medical Officer Dr. Margarita Pereyda reminded everyone of the dire state of the county’s hospital system.

“The Department of Health Services is under immense stress right now, as is the rest of Los Angeles County,” Pereyda said, pointing to “the lack of intensive care unit beds, the really horrific increase in not only people who are positive, but the terrifying increase in hospitalizations. Our emergency departments are at max capacity.”

When the rate of infection is this high, the entire system is affected, including the camps and halls, she added, making a plea for everyone to wear masks and avoid non-household gatherings.

“It’s vitally important in the next two to three weeks because there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for the number of hospitalizations that we are experiencing,” Pereyda said.