Gavin Newsom fights COVID vaccine mandate for prison guards

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Seeking a warrant of vaccination for all guards and staff in state prisons, a federally appointed receiver overseeing California prison medical care argued on Friday that there had been 11 deaths linked to the coronavirus since August among correctional service workers who were not fully vaccinated and outbreaks at 21 prisons.

“We really have a problem with prosecuting major epidemics,” J. Clark Kelso, court-appointed receiver, US District Court Judge Jon Tigar, told a virtual hearing in Oakland. Explaining that the coronavirus has repeatedly spread from staff to inmates, he noted that recently six other states and the federal prison system have made vaccines mandatory for all prison employees.

Kelso asked the judge to impose the warrant because he said voluntary staff vaccination programs had failed. At High Desert State Prison in Susanville, for example, only 29% of employees are fully immunized.

But Gregg Adam, attorney for the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., Argued that the state was not indifferent to prisoners because it offered the vaccine to 99% of inmates and nearly a quarter of them refused vaccination. Adam warned that implementing a vaccination mandate among guards and staff could result in the downtime of a significant number of staff and put extraordinary pressure on prisons.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Gavin Newsom has defended some of the country’s toughest restrictions on coronaviruses and called for vaccination warrants for all health workers.

But Newsom and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have continued to fight the demand for mandatory immunizations for all guards and correctional staff. The CDCR supervises 35 prisons and around 99,000 inmates.

Kelso and his medical staff argue that the virus, which they say is mainly spread by prison staff, has caused more than 50,000 infections of inmates and more than 20,000 staff to test positive for COVID-19. This resulted in the deaths of 240 inmates statewide and 39 staff.

In a court file last week, Kelso noted that five state prisons had reported major outbreaks of COVID-19, forcing widespread quarantines. He argues that six months of voluntary vaccination efforts have failed to reduce the number of unvaccinated employees who remain just over half.

Newsom’s office released a statement Thursday evening defending its position, saying the governor “led California to the lowest transmission rate and highest vaccinations in the country following scientific consensus and public health guidelines.” .

He points out that California was the first state to mandate vaccination or testing for all of its state employees, including corrections employees, and a state ordinance covering vaccinated health workers covers three prisons. medical.

“The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was one of the first state agencies to offer staff vaccinations, starting in late 2020,” he said. “Additionally, California has also led the nation in providing rapid access to vaccines for those in prison. Currently, 76% of the incarcerated population has been fully vaccinated, 56% of staff have been vaccinated and 4% have received at least one dose. “

In a statement to The Times, the Corrections leadership said that “its leadership has long embraced COVID-19 vaccinations, and we continue to encourage our staff, the prison population, volunteers and visitors to get vaccinated. We also work with those who are not vaccinated with educational resources, access to clinicians and experts to answer questions, and broad access to the vaccine. ”

Interviewing the state’s lead counsel on Friday, Judge Tigar repeatedly asked if he thought the risk of preventable death would be reduced if the state was mandated to get vaccinated. “That’s what the record shows,” Tigar said.

Paul Mello, representing the state, told Tigar the prison’s efforts against the virus were successful, saying it was not about people infected before vaccines were available, but what happening now, noting that only two prisoners are currently hospitalized and 253 tests positive.

Newsom and the state’s opposition to mandatory vaccines are supported by unions representing correctional officers and other staff.

In July, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. cut a check for $ 1.75 million to Newsom’s recall defense fund. The Service Employees International Union, which represents approximately 12,000 prison workers, contributed a combined $ 5.5 million to Newsom’s anti-recall campaign from its various locals.

Lawyers for the peace officers’ union argue that if the goal is to protect detainees, then they should look to the 22% of inmates who have refused all doses of vaccines offered.

Rita Lomio, of the Prison Law Office, told the judge on Friday that the union was using “scare tactics” to suggest that there would not be enough prison guards if the warrant was implemented. She noted that federal prisons in Colorado, Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington, Nevada and New Mexico already require that prison workers be vaccinated.

Don Specter, of the Prison Law Office and one of the main attorneys representing detainees in a state overcrowding lawsuit, said in an interview: “The guards are primarily the source of the infection,” and yet the governor balks at the suggestion they should be vaccinated. “Well, the guards and other inmate unions have tremendous influence. Just look at the donations.

Specter said it was the first time Kelso, appointed by the court to protect the health of those locked up in California, “broke with the state over the past year on how to respond to the pandemic.” The prison law firm has been asking Kelso to push for mandatory vaccines for months, saying it is a matter of life and death.

Kelso called on Tigar to impose the warrant saying the Delta variant of the virus “poses enormous risks.” In August alone, 1,607 CDCR employees tested positive, a 300% increase, he informed the court.

“The risk is now grave,” Kelso wrote in a 27-page report to the court on the conditions of detention. “We cannot afford to be lulled by the decline in infections in CDCR, which reflects declining rates in the wider community.

Asking Tigar to take action, Kelso’s legal team noted that “only 40% of prison officers statewide are fully immunized. The proportion is alarming in some institutions. ”

For example, at High Desert State Prison, “only 16% of all prison officers are fully vaccinated,” they wrote in court documents. The prison is at the center of the state’s conservative belt, where there is strong opposition to vaccines.

Kelso told the court that half of the outbreaks in state prisons in May, June and July could be attributed to employees.

“While staff members are tested, the tests are universally recognized as a much imperfect substitute for vaccination,” the report says. “Staff can be infected between tests. And even when tested, COVID-19 is often not detectable by testing early in its incubation period. “

Kelso said he and the Correctional Medicine leadership agree that “vaccinating staff is the best way to achieve the best health benefits for those in prison.”

Newsom’s office said the state’s public health official had already ordered employees regularly assigned to provide health services to be fully immunized by October 14.

Kelso said the state plan represents a small portion of prison workers.

Worse yet, the more than 15,000 inmates deemed to be high risk do not spend their time in the area covered by the health care workers order. As of September 1, he added, 385 fully vaccinated inmates had achieved a COVID-19 breakthrough, with a quarter of them at high risk.

Kelso’s report to the court included a statement from Dr. Joseph Bick, director of health services at California Corrections Health Care Services, stating that “vaccination is imperative.”

With a strain as transmissible as the Delta variant, it is especially important that staff be vaccinated to limit the introduction of COVID into [prison] institutions because once introduced it is extremely difficult to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which could lead to large-scale epidemics, ”Bick wrote.

Tigar, concluding the hearing, said he was grateful to Newsom and his criminal justice team for ensuring that vaccines were available to those in prison. And although it is legally limited to considering the well-being of incarcerated persons, “I am sorry to learn this morning that 11 more… staff members have died from COVID.”

The judge has taken the matter under advisement and is expected to rule shortly.


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