SAN JOSE — The coroner’s office has confirmed that a man in Santa Clara County jail custody died from COVID-19 after he was hospitalized during a record-setting infection surge last month, marking the county’s first official inmate death from the virus.
Izaac Ruben Bermea, 50, of Gilroy, died Monday night, about three weeks after he was admitted into Valley Medical Center following what the sheriff’s office — which operates the county jails — described as a “routine medical assessment” by jail nursing staff.
Bermea had been held in the Main Jail in San Jose since August 2020 on charges that he killed his girlfriend in a home near San Ysidro Park in Gilroy. At the time of his arrest, police spelled his name as Izaak.
Officially, his cause of death was listed as “complications from COVID-19,” according to the county Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office.
His hospitalization on Nov. 9 occurred amid a sharp COVID-19 surge in the Santa Clara County jails, which began around Nov. 2 and hit a peak Nov. 16 when 159 active in-custody infections were reported by the county. Thirty new cases were reported on Nov. 9, which was the second-highest one-day count of the infection spike.
The surge overwhelmed jail staff and the county’s jail facilities, particularly at the Elmwood medium- and minimum-security jail complex in Milpitas, where most of the infections were reported. Officials in the county’s Custody Health division said providing adequate quarantine and isolation for infected and exposed people was impossible because they ran out of space.
Custody health officials recommended that the county bring the total jail population to below 2,000 to allow for sufficient quarantine practices and distancing. The daily jail census as of Thursday morning was 2,427 people. Amnesty and early-release measures in the first six months of the pandemic brought the population down from 3,200 to 2,100, but that number has since ticked upward to hover around the current total. Smaller-scale efforts last month have shaved about 100 inmates off the census, and there are no announced plans for additional decreases.
Chief Public Defender Molly O’Neal, whose office represents a majority of people held in the county jails, said Bermea’s death should compel the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office and local courts to move more rapidly to fulfill the custody health recommendation.
“It is simply that those who have the authority are not exercising it,” she said. “We have a moral imperative to decrease the jail population in accordance with the directives from public health. Time is of the essence because we need available space in the jail. If we see a spike again, we do not want to be caught flat footed.”
Jose Valle II, an organizer for the social-justice group Silicon Valley De-Bug who focuses on jail conditions, called the death a reminder of the urgency at hand, and said that more loss of life could be coming without major changes.
“One person didn’t have to pass away for us to realize this is a serious issue. It definitely could have been prevented,” Valle said. “This needs to be a county-wide effort for all those who have power. We don’t want a life to be taken away unnecessarily because the jail is not fit for a pandemic, nor do they have the resources or the space to treat people during a pandemic.”
The surge slowed in the second half of November, but now the country is bracing for the arrival of the new omicron variant of COVID-19, first detected stateside in San Francisco. A second detected case has been announced in Minnesota, involving a resident who had traveled to New York City.
The sheriff’s office said last week that 59% of the jail population is fully or partially vaccinated, and that 93% of jail staff is vaccinated. Neither the sheriff’s office nor the custody health division responded to a request for comment Thursday.
The status of Bermea’s death as the jail system’s first official COVID-19 fatality might be a matter of accounting. According to jail and court sources, a person being held in Elmwood who had become ill and was hospitalized earlier this year with ailments that included suspected COVID-19 exposure was granted a compassionate release, so that by the time he died was technically not in jail custody. That also meant that information about the exact circumstances of his death would not fall within the jurisdiction of the coroner’s office — and become public — and remain shielded by medical privacy laws.