Inmate lawyers worried about unvaccinated prison staff
With a new, more infectious variant of the coronavirus sweeping across California, lawyers representing inmates say violations of health orders by prison staff risk a repeat of outbreaks that have killed dozens of people in the pandemic’s first year .
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is fighting a federal judge’s order that all employees in California prisons must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be granted a religious or medical exemption. The administration argues in part that frequent testing can help limit the spread of the virus.
But a large percentage of employees who have to be tested twice a week do not, “and most of those workers experience no consequences,” lawyers for inmates said in a recent court file, citing figures that, officials say are now suspect.
The concern comes as new cases skyrocket in California and state models predict a gradual increase in hospitalizations and intensive care admissions over the next month.
More than 5,100 people have been hospitalized and more than 1,100 in intensive care statewide, a number expected to exceed 7,300 and 1,300 by the end of January.
The Greater Sacramento region has joined the San Francisco Bay Area and southern California with an effective reproduction number greater than 1. Anything greater than 1 means that the number of infected people will increase, and only the northern California and San Joaquin Valley regions remained below 1.
Prison officials have temporarily closed new admissions to the Wasco State Prison Reception Center in the San Joaquin Valley, the site of California’s current worst prison outbreak with more than 150 new infections in the past two weeks.
They also restrict movement, programs and visits by inmates to facilities affected by epidemics.
And as of Monday, inmates statewide must be fully immunized to have in-person or family visits, unless they have approved religious or medical exemptions.
The bi-weekly testing requirement applies to around 10,000 unvaccinated correctional service workers, nearly a third of whom were non-compliant from mid-October to mid-November, according to the most recent data provided by the officials. correctional officials.
Still, state figures show fewer than 20 staff were sanctioned over the same period, although correctional officials have said those figures are misleading, “in part because fully vaccinated staff who don’t ‘is not subject to the testing requirement may turn out to be non-compliant with the testing “.
Prisons had nearly 350 active inmate coronavirus cases as of Thursday, up from less than 190 two days earlier, with nearly half of the total at Wasco Prison. There have been fewer outbreaks in prisons near Norco, Corcoran, San Diego, Folsom and Chino.
There have been nearly 400 new infections among prison workers statewide.
Prison officials said they had not seen an increase in hospitalizations, which have remained between one and three in the past two months statewide.
âPrisons are lagging behind communities,â said Steve Fama, a lawyer with the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which represents inmates. âThe virus has to jump into prisons, literally jump in – it has to break through the wall, and it just takes time. “
The cases are only a fraction of the system’s nearly 100,000 inmates and nothing to do with epidemics of the past year, including one that sickened 75% of inmates at San Quentin State Prison in the north. of San Francisco, killing 28 inmates and a correctional officer.
Since the start of the pandemic, 245 inmates and 49 prison staff have died statewide.
Corrections officials said they “continue to enforce a mask warrant for all staff and require unvaccinated workers to wear N95 masks and get tested twice a week – twice the frequency required “by the California Department of Public Health.
They also said in a statement that they were “diligently resolving discrepancies in staff COVID-19 vaccination and testing data,” but could not yet provide updated statistics.
A related review by prison officers from staff at two prisons that house the sickest inmates reduced the percentage of those initially listed as not complying with health rules from more than 10% to just 2% at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville and over 8% to about 5% at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton.
Meanwhile, vaccinations are lagging behind contractors at these prisons, according to inmate lawyers, despite a separate requirement that all employees be vaccinated there. Again, there are few consequences, according to court documents, as contractors “cannot be penalized for not complying.”
The contractors are not state employees, but “are expected to comply and they should not work in the facility if they are not vaccinated,” said Paul Mello, a correctional service attorney, in response when from a recent court hearing.
Subcontractors, including healthcare providers, make up around a quarter of Vacaville prison employees, but only 37% are vaccinated as required.
They represent nearly 1 in 5 employees at Stockton Prison, 61% of whom are vaccinated. This compares to about 80% of permanent staff vaccinated in the two prisons.
Last week, the state’s public health official, Dr TomÃ¡s AragÃ³n, developed the vaccination order for all paid and unpaid people who are regularly assigned to provide health care to detainees or to the work in penitentiary medical establishments or in local prisons.
They were supposed to be vaccinated in mid-October, and his order now requires them to receive booster shots before February 1.
Citing the new Omicron variant which he said could be two to four times more contagious than the Delta variant, AragÃ³n warned that âeven a moderate increase in cases and hospitalizations could have a significant impact on the healthcare delivery system of California health in parts of the state â.
The federally appointed receiver who controls medical care in California prisons said officials were working to secure recalls of all eligible inmates by the end of the year. Of around 70,000 eligible detainees, nearly three-quarters had received one by mid-December.