A new wave of COVID-19 at San Quentin prison, where 29 inmates died last year at the start of the pandemic, has prompted new calls for a statewide vaccine mandate for prison staff.
“It’s just the perfect place for the virus to propagate,” said Don Specter, whose Prison Law Office represents inmates suing over health care conditions in San Quentin and other prisons.
That facility was hit by a major COVID-19 outbreak last year, with more than 2,000 cases and 29 deaths. The state traced many among the massive number of cases to infected inmates transferred from other prisons in Southern California.
Currently, there are new lockdown restrictions at San Quentin following a much smaller outbreak where one inmate, and possibly four others, have been infected, despite having been vaccinated.
Specter blames the latest outbreak on unvaccinated guards bringing in the highly contagious Delta variant. He noted that while 85% of San Quentin inmates have been vaccinated, just over half the state’s guards have gotten immunized. He is now urging the court overseeing health care at the state’s prisons to intervene to prevent more infections.
“People who work in the prisons should be vaccinated, in order to protect themselves and in order to protect the people they are charged with protecting,” he said.
But when the state issued a limited vaccine mandate this month, it exempted prison and nursing home workers. The Department of Corrections, in a statement, said it is currently relying on mask directives, staff and visitor screening and proof of testing in lieu of a vaccine mandates.
In a recent court filing, the state touts the progress it has made in encouraging vaccination among reluctant prison staff -- saying that the staff vaccination rate stands at 54%.
It concludes it believes “it is necessary to do everything reasonably possible to educate and encourage voluntary vaccine acceptance by staff before determining whether to mandate the vaccine as a condition of employment.”
But Specter says further delay on a mandate is simply not justifiable given the previous San Quentin outbreak.
“It’s bizarre,” he said of the state’s current mandate stance. “I just don’t understand it, it doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Meanwhile, a court hearing is set on whether a judge should compel a prison staff vaccine mandate next month. Specter worries about the risk before then, given the evident risk that the highly contagious Delta variant will be brought in by unvaccinated guards.
“This just is an outrageous situation that deserves quicker action,” he said.