Inmates in California jails and prisons — regardless of age or health — will be eligible for the coronavirus vaccine under updated guidelines released this week by the state Department of Public Health.
The new guidelines, from Monday, March 15, open vaccinations for individuals in “congregate residential setting(s),” including jails, prisons, immigration detention centers, behavioral health facilities and homeless shelters.
“These settings are at high risk for outbreaks and have a concentration of individuals with high-risk chronic health conditions,” read the guidelines, which do not require that inmates be vaccinated.
Previously, inmates over 65, and those 18 to 64 years old with chronic health conditions such as kidney disease and cancer, were eligible for the shots.
Jails and prisons throughout California have seen sporadic outbreaks of COVID-19. More than 2,200 inmates at San Quentin State Prison became infected with the virus in summer, with 28 inmates dying from COVID-19.
In the Inland Empire, COVID-19 deaths have been reported at the California Institution for Men and the California Institution for Women in Chino. At one point in summer, Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe, in far eastern Riverside County, led the state in coronavirus prison infections, and at least three Chuckawalla inmates have died from the virus.
An outbreak at Terminal Island federal prison in San Pedro last spring infected almost 70% of the roughly 1,000 inmates and killed at least eight. The ACLU sued on inmates’ behalf, accusing the federal Bureau of Prisons of “deliberate indifference” in not following recommendations to release non-violent inmates to prevent more infections.
More than 49,000 cases in California prisons have been reported during the pandemic, though just 42 have been recorded in the past two weeks, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
In an emailed statement, the corrections department said: “We are prioritizing vaccine distribution in a manner that is consistent with (state public health) guidelines … As such, it is our intent to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all (corrections) employees and incarcerated individuals so we can get back to a level of normal operations as soon as it is safe to do so.”
As of Sunday, March 14, more than 26,000 corrections staff and almost 43,000 inmates had received at least one vaccine dose, the department added.
Infections also pose a challenge for county jails run by sheriffs’ departments.
Riverside County, as of Monday, reported 932 infections in its jails and 925 recoveries since the pandemic started. There have been no COVID-19-positive inmates in the past week, Sgt. Deanna Pecoraro, a Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman, said Friday, March 12, via email.
Orange County has reported more than 2,300 cases in its jails, while Los Angeles County has recorded more than 4,200 cases among its jail inmates.
San Bernardino County, as of Thursday, March 18, had reported 985 coronavirus cases in its jails in the past year and 982 recoveries, said Jodi Miller, a San Bernardino County sheriff’s spokesperson.
Miller said three inmates have COVID-19 now. “They are being given medical treatment around the clock and are recovering,” she said.
“People who are incarcerated also disproportionately experience chronic health conditions and disabilities that put them at heightened risk of suffering and death due to COVID-19,” said Sophie Hart, an attorney with Prison Law Office, via email. “And the danger is not limited to those incarcerated in the jails. Every day, staff enter and leave the jails and incarcerated people are released into the community, so an outbreak in the jail is a real risk for the entire community.”
Sheriffs have been under pressure to release inmates early to prevent infections, a move resisted by Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes and Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco. In January, Barnes lost an appeal of a court order requiring him to cut his jail population in half, and Bianco has pushed back against calls to turn inmates loose, saying last April: “If you are afraid to go to jail and catch the virus, then don’t go to jail, don’t break the law.”
Erin Winger, deputy agency director of Orange County’s Correctional Health Services, said via email: “We received approval (Monday) evening to expand vaccine eligibility to all incarcerated individuals residing in the OC jails. Our team is meeting today to discuss implementation and we will roll out plans this week.”
As of Monday, 490 Orange County jail inmates had been vaccinated while another 550 who were eligible refused the vaccine, Winger added.
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department plans to offer vaccinations to all its inmates, Pecoraro said Tuesday.
On Friday, Pecoraro said that about 90% of Riverside County jail inmates who are eligible for the vaccine had requested it. She declined to say how many inmates have been vaccinated and how many are currently in county jails.
San Bernardino County had vaccinated 72 inmates as of Monday, officials said. The county’s average daily jail population fluctuates between 5,500 and 5,600 inmates, according to Miller, the sheriff’s spokeswoman.
Prior to Monday, another 500 inmates were eligible to be vaccinated because they are 18 to 64 years old and have health conditions that put them at greater risk for severe illness or death from coronavirus, Miller said via email.
“Once we start offering the vaccine to all inmates, we will confer with (public health), our chief medical officer, and our health (administrator) to formulate an vaccination plan,” Miller added.
Officials running Los Angeles County’s massive jail system, the world’s largest, plan to offer the vaccine to all 15,356 people in their custody under the state’s new guidelines. The timing depends on how quickly the county receives doses.
Earlier this week, Los Angeles county jails got 1,000 Moderna vaccines intended for its incarcerated population and expect to get the same amount each week, said Los Angeles County Assistant Sheriff Bruce Dean, who oversees county jails. Officials hope to receive the “one-shot” Johnson & Johnson vaccine soon.
As of Tuesday, 1,058 incarcerated people have been vaccinated out of the county’s jail population of 15,356, Dean said. About 50% to 60% of those offered vaccines have accepted them.
Legal experts have long expressed concerns over the county jails’ crowded and unhealthy conditions, which they say, is exacerbated by spread of the virus. As jail officials have reduced their population by the thousands throughout the pandemic, county facilities currently incarcerate more than several thousand people beyond their intended capacity, according to county data.
In the past year, 4,268 people incarcerated in county jails tested positive for COVID-19 and 13 of them later died, county data show.
Prior to the wider net of vaccine eligibility cast Tuesday, Dean said the Correctional Health Services were only allowed to offer vaccines to incarcerated individuals who fell within the state’s community guidelines: those who lived in skilled nursing level care and those over the age of 65.
Some jail officers and staff were among the earliest to qualify under the state’s guidelines and received their first round of doses in mid-January. About 70% of staff are accepting doses. Dean was unable to provide how many of the 5,100 jail staff have been vaccinated.
Staff writers David Downey and Tony Saavedra contributed to this report.