Calif. prison overseer asks judge to mandate COVID vaccines for all COs, staff

Only 42% of custody staffers in state prisons have received at least one dose of the vaccines, the request notes

By Sam Stanton
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO — The federal receiver overseeing medical care inside California's prisons asked a federal judge Wednesday for a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination order for officers and staff at the prisons, saying the delta variant of the virus "poses enormous risks."

"The risk now is grave," federal receiver J. Clark Kelso wrote in a 27-page report to the court about conditions inside California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation facilities. "We cannot afford to be lulled by the decline in infections in CDCR, which mirrored the fall in rates in the larger community.

"That fall in rates is, unfortunately, already a thing of the past. That fire may be dying, but a new one is starting."

Just 16% of all corrections officers at High Desert State Prison in Susanville are fully vaccinated.
Just 16% of all corrections officers at High Desert State Prison in Susanville are fully vaccinated. (Flickr/American Documentary, Inc.)

The request to U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar in San Francisco notes that only 42% of custody staffers in state prisons have received at least one dose of the vaccines, and that overall only 53% of all staff have had a shot.

"Only 40% of corrections officers statewide are fully vaccinated," Kelso's office wrote. "The proportion is alarmingly lower in some institutions.

"For example, at High Desert State Prison just 16% of all corrections officers are fully vaccinated," he wrote, referring to a prison in Sunsanville.

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order last week requiring all state workers provide proof of vaccination or wear masks and undergo regular testing.

But Kelso's request goes further, saying "a mandatory vaccination policy is medically necessary for those individuals who regularly go in and out of CDCR facilities." Kelso also would have inmates who work outside the prisons — such as fire camps — or those who have in-person visitors also be vaccinated.

The proposed policy would allow for medical and religious exemptions, but Kelso's report says the threat of more outbreaks inside California's crowded prisons is "dramatically higher" than outside such facilities.

"In CDCR facilities, 49,580 incarcerated people — 50% of all persons incarcerated by CDCR — have had a confirmed case of COVID‐19," the report says. "To date, 232 incarcerated people have died of COVID‐19."

Union prefers voluntary vaccination

The push for mandatory vaccines comes as private employers, universities and health care providers are requiring employees and students to provide proof of vaccination, and already the state's largest public employee union, SEIU 1000, has indicated it would oppose Newsom's plan.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Kelso's report Wednesday, but last week it filed documents with the court saying conditions in the prisons were improving and that mandatory vaccines were not needed.

"The union's position remains that voluntary vaccination should be pursued with renewed vigor, especially since it appears that efforts to this date have not been vigorous," the filing states. "A mandatory vaccination order should be avoided, particularly because infection rates remain extremely low and less intrusive means of addressing the challenges of COVID-19 have not been exhausted."

Prison employees bring COVID-19 inside

Kelso noted that prison staffers are "primary vectors" for bringing COVID-19 into the prisons.

"This is not a criticism, it is simply a fact...," the report says. "All of CDCR's institutional staff members live outside the prison and regularly come into contact with friends, family, and local service providers in the surrounding community.

"They bring the risk of these contacts back with them to CDCR institutions. It cannot be otherwise unless staff effectively become prisoners themselves, taking up residence in the prisons and never traveling beyond the walls for the duration of the pandemic."

The report says half of all outbreaks during May, June and July were traced back to staffers, and says that testing as a substitute for vaccination is not enough.

"While staff members are tested, testing is universally recognized as a far imperfect substitute for vaccination," the report says. "Staff may be infected between tests. And even when tested, COVID‐19 is often not detectable by test in its early incubation period."

Kelso said he and CDCR's medical experts agree that "vaccination of staff is the best way to achieve the greatest health benefits for incarcerated persons."

CDCR issued a statement Wednesday saying officials "are currently reviewing the federal receiver's recommendation, and evaluating next steps."

"From the onset of the pandemic, the department has been proactive and responsive in implementing mitigation efforts, including masking at all times, regular testing and vaccines, which continue currently at all of our institutions. Our department is embracing and complying with the Governor's proof of vaccination and testing requirements as related to state workers, and we have and will continue to work with public health and health care to ensure we are doing everything we can for the health and safety of our staff, population and communities."

Kelso's report was accompanied by a declaration from Dr. Joseph Bick, director of health care services for the California Correctional Health Care Services, saying that "vaccination is imperative."

"With such a transmissible strain, it is particularly important that staff be vaccinated to limit the introduction of COVID into CDCR institutions because, once introduced, it is extraordinarily difficult to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which could lead to large-scale outbreaks," Bick wrote.
(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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