More than 3,800 California prison staffers have coronavirus amid massive surge this month
California’s prisons have seen a huge surge in the number of employees testing positive for the coronavirus, with 3,845 active infections Monday, a 212% increase so far this month.
In the last two weeks there have been 3,912 new coronavirus cases among state employees working inside California’s prisons, coinciding with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant throughout the state’s population.
The surge comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom and the correctional officers union have continued to appeal a federal judge’s order that all employees should be vaccinated to protect the rights and health of those serving prison sentences.
“We’re not near an all-time high of cases, but like the community, the rise in rates is exponential and like nothing we have seen so far,” said Don Specter, executive director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which is seeking to require all prison employees to be vaccinated. “The real test is whether there will be a commensurate increase in hospitalizations. We probably won’t know that for another week or two.”
Dana Simas, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that a year ago, the department recorded a peak of about 4,400 cases statewide in December 2020.
But the latest surge has expanded much more quickly than last year’s. On Dec. 31, the corrections department reported 1,232 infected workers.
The largest staff outbreak is at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, which holds prisoners with medical conditions, where 252 staff members have active infections. That facility has the highest percentage of vaccinated staff in the state, with 85%.
Some 2,350 active inmate infections were reported Monday across the prisons, another surge over previous weeks but nowhere near the highs of the last two years that saw 246 prisoners die of COVID-19. In addition, 49 staff members have died.
The bulk of the infections are at Wasco State Prison in Kern County, the California Rehabilitation Center in Riverside County and the California Institution for Men in San Bernardino County. Each has 400 to 500 active infections.
In an effort to stop the surge, the state corrections department on Monday suspended intake from county jails to North Kern State Prison, where inmates have been entering the state prison system.
Visits to state prisons have again been curtailed.
The severity of illness inside prisons from the Omicron-driven surge could be lower thanks to more widespread vaccination compared with previous surges; 80% of those being held are fully vaccinated, as are 69% of staff members.
In November, a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel temporarily blocked a judge’s order requiring all California prison workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or have a religious or medical exemption.
That vaccination mandate was supposed to have taken effect by Jan. 12, but the appellate court stayed enforcement until the appeal is heard in March.
The judge who issued the order followed the recommendation of a court-appointed receiver who was chosen to manage the state prison healthcare system after a federal judge in 2005 found that California had failed to provide adequate medical care to prisoners.
Newsom, the corrections department and the correctional officers union appealed the judge’s order.
Connie Gipson, director of adult institutions for the corrections department, said in court documents that when a similar vaccination mandate was enacted in Washington, about 4.5% of the state’s prison staff quit. Although Washington has continued its prison operations largely unimpeded, Gipson said that level of resignations in California would have a “severe” effect.
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