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Friday, April 19, 2024

In-person jury services resume after temporarily shifting online due to rise in COVID-19 Omicron cases

The public health officer provides updates on Omicron variant in Yolo County

By SHRADDHA JHINGAN city@theaggie.org

 

After a one month hiatus due to the rise in COVID-19 Omicron cases, jury trials recommenced in Yolo County on Feb. 7. When the pandemic first hit in 2020, the Yolo Superior Court shifted to remote operations on Zoom for the majority of court hearings, according to a press release published on Feb. 2. 

“The technology allowed us to keep our court working without endangering public health,” Daniel Maguire, the presiding judge of the Yolo Superior Court, said in the press release. “Remote appearance has been a tremendous success — it has proven popular with judges, lawyers, litigants, witnesses and court observers, and the Yolo Court plans to keep it as an option even when the pandemic ends.”

Though court operations could be held online, jury trials need to be held in-person, although there may be breaks again during peaks of COVID-19 cases, according to the press release. 

“Jury trials can’t wait until the pandemic ends — the accused have speedy trial rights, victims need closure, civil litigants must have their day in court, and cases must be heard while memories are fresh and witnesses are available,” Maguire said in the press release. 

There are also various actions being taken to keep people safe amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. To “streamline litigation and settle cases,” the Yolo Superior Court has been working with their “justice partners” when possible.

They also have close ties with the Conflicts Counsel, the District Attorney, the Public Defender and the private bar, which the Yolo County Bar Association represents. These entities aim to settle cases so that jurors do not need to be summoned. 

However, because not every case can be settled without summoning jurors, there are various precautions in place. For example, masks are mandatory in the courthouse and there are social distancing policies for each courtroom and the jury assembly room. 

“We have a modern and spacious courthouse, with high-capacity ventilation systems,”  Maguire said in the press release. “And we have judges and staff committed to keeping our jurors safe and keeping the wheels of justice moving.”

John Fout, the public information officer for Yolo County, said that masking is recommended and stated the best way to prevent the onset of COVID-19. 

“Our Health Officer, Dr. Aimee Sisson, strongly recommends everyone mask until we reach a moderate community transmission level of < 7 cases per 100,000,” Fout said via email. “Vaccination and boosters remain the safest, most effective prevention to COVID-19.”

As a result of the pandemic, there was a new development “in jury service: remote appearance for hardship screening,” the press release said. When an individual gets a jury summons they will first be screened in a virtual courtroom, though they can also visit in person if they would like.

Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig said that the pandemic also had an impact on the criminal justice system beyond just jury services. For instance, hearings could be delayed.

“Covid restrictions impacted the rights of all involved in the criminal justice system,” Reisig said via email. “The California Supreme Court issued special orders which resulted in delayed hearings for those accused and victims too. The remote nature of many proceedings infringed on the relationship between lawyers and the parties. It was not ideal in any analysis.”

However, there has gradually been a return to in person services, which has many benefits, according to Reisig.

“As the Covid restrictions lessen, our staff has returned to a more normal approach to the job,” Reisig said. “In person appearances are a vital part of our adversarial system. We are looking forward to a full return to normal for all.”

Ultimately, as the pandemic continues to evolve, jury service will continue as it is essential but there will be measures in place to prevent COVID-19, according to the press release.

“Jury service is an important act of public service; indeed, it’s the closest thing we have to direct democracy, and it is a bedrock aspect of our justice system,” Maguire said in the press release. “It can’t stop during a pandemic, but the Yolo Superior Court and our justice partners are committed to making the experience as safe and efficient as possible.”

As more and more services return to in-person operation, Fout explained the importance of following public health guidelines. In January, the case rate was 242 per 100,000 when the Omicron variant peaked, and as of Feb. 17, it is 43.8 per 100,0000.

“While that is good news, transmission levels remain high,” Fout said. “We recently adopted the state of California’s new masking guidance, allowing vaccinated people the option to choose to mask or not in some public settings.”

Fout added that masking is still mandatory in nursing homes, schools, detention facilities or jails, public transportation and congregant living facilities. In addition, “the Omicron surge showed two positive effects not seen in prior variants.” 

The first positive effect Fout mentioned was that the rise in cases did not lead to a proportionately higher rise in hospitalizations, meaning that the healthcare system was not overburdened as a result of the new variant.

“Second, Omicron is the first variant with milder severity,” Fout said. “We also have vital prevention with filtered masks and vaccination. The positives explain our change in masking guidance and signal learning to live with the virus. Finally, Yolo County will have fewer mandates and more recommendations for residents.”

 

Written by: Shraddha Jhingan — city@theaggie.org

 

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