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L.A. County prosecutors, public defenders got COVID vaccine ahead of time, sources say

Healthcare workers wait in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Several deputy district attorneys and public defenders were able to receive doses of the COVD-19 vaccine at a Crenshaw distribution site Wednesday, despite the fact that the county is only supposed to be administering the vaccine to healthcare workers, according to two officials with knowledge of the situation and documents obtained by The Times.

While it is unclear exactly how many doses were administered, an internal e-mail obtained by The Times confirmed several public defenders had been vaccinated as of Wednesday morning. That same e-mail, sent by a supervisor in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, directed prosecutors to go to a testing site in Crenshaw to receive the vaccine.

A prosecutor also claimed to have received the vaccine alongside several public defender’s employees in a Facebook post published Thursday.

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office declined to comment. Representatives for the L.A. County Department of Public Health, the public defender’s office, the fire department and City Hall did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment on Thursday and Friday.

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The news marks the latest headache for the county’s chaotic rollout of the vaccine. While healthcare workers are currently the only group eligible to receive vaccinations, a Times reporter saw at least 100 people receive doses last week without showing proof they worked in the healthcare industry. Crowds seeking early access to the vaccine have also led to long wait lines at distribution sites.

As coronavirus cases continue to surge, California officials expanded the range of people eligible to receive the vaccine to those 65 and older this week, but Los Angeles County officials say the vaccine will not be available to them until healthcare workers have been vaccinated. It could now be weeks before the older residents can receive their first dose.

One official with knowledge of the situation estimated that dozens of public defenders and deputy district attorneys attempted to get doses at the Crenshaw Christian Center, which was previously being used as a COVID-19 testing site, before fire department and health personnel intervened on Wednesday. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the matter candidly.

An attorney for one of the offices visited the Crenshaw site and told staff there that they worked for the county and “came into contact with mental health patients,” so they should be eligible to receive the vaccine, according to one of the officials. A short time later, several more attorneys with the public defender’s and district attorney’s offices arrived at the same site and received doses, the official said.

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Healthcare workers employed by the Department of Mental Health are currently eligible to receive the vaccine, but attorneys are not, per the county’s health guidelines.

Later Wednesday morning, an assistant head deputy prosecutor sent a message to staff informing them the Crenshaw site was “offering the COVID vaccine to County Employees (whom they consider essential workers) with County ID,” according to a copy of the e-mail received by The Times. The e-mail claimed several public defenders had visited the site and “all came to court vaccinated.”

One deputy district attorney also said in a Facebook post that he had received the vaccine, alongside other “public defender and prosecutor colleagues.” The attorney did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment.

Concerns about health risks for those working in the county’s sprawling court system have been constant throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While the court system has taken several steps to limit the number of people in the county’s courts by delaying trials and limiting access to court facilities, social distancing is still difficult in courtrooms.

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A deputy public defender and an interpreter have both died after contracting the virus, and there have been at least 250 instances of possible exposures, including instances where defendants and police officers who had tested positive for the virus walked into courtrooms, according to a log of coronavirus incidents in the courts previously obtained by The Times.

Eric Siddal, vice president of the union representing deputy district attorneys, said there has generally been a lot of confusion about when prosecutors and public defenders would become eligible for the vaccine.

“It’s a new administration and there hasn’t been a lot of communication with the troops about what to do and how to handle these things, so unfortunately it seems like a lot of information is being spread by rumor, without any formal declaration by the administration,” he said.


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