San Quentin COVID-19 reinfections prompt push for vaccine mandates

 An aerial view San Quentin State Prison on July 08, 2020 in San Quentin, California.
An aerial view San Quentin State Prison on July 08, 2020 in San Quentin, California. Photo credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Prisoner advocates are calling for tougher vaccine mandates for correctional officers as COVID-19 continues to infect people incarcerated in California prisons.

More than a year after the massive outbreak at San Quentin State Prison infected thousands and claimed 29 lives, some are contracting the coronavirus for a second time.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told KCBS Radio in a statement Tuesday that prison officials quarantined a facility after four positive cases two weekends ago. Three of those cases were reinfections, the department said, and San Quentin officials limited movement and canceled in-person visits while following the department’s "Roadmap to Reopening."

The department's public COVID-19 tracker only lists one of the cases because the department only identifies patients who have never been infected with the coronavirus, officials said.

"California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) is currently reevaluating the methodology for counting COVID cases," the department of corrections told KCBS Radio in a statement, "shifting to a case count of confirmed infections, including patients who are re-infected 90 or more days after being most recently infected with COVID."

The tracker also lists 12 active cases among San Quentin prison staff as of Aug. 20.

While 86% of the incarcerated population at San Quentin is currently fully vaccinated against COVID-19, fewer than 60% of staff are. California’s current health order requires staff to be vaccinated by Oct. 14 or to be tested twice a week.

Isabella Borgeson, a fellow with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, told KCBS Radio that would still mean that an unvaccinated employee who has not been tested for several days can move through the prison, including in and out of areas that might be under lockdown during an outbreak.

"There should be daily rapid testing for all staff members, all people who are going in and out of San Quentin prison," she said, "knowing what's at stake with the delta variant and potential breakthrough cases, especially in congregate settings."

Richard "Bonaru" Richardson caught COVID-19 while incarcerated at San Quentin last year during the massive outbreak that killed 28 incarcerated people​ and one officer. He said he hopes those who are there now don’t have to go through that again.

"Watching the bodies roll out in a gurney was very traumatizing," he recalled Tuesday as part of a Mount Tamalpais College virtual panel, alongside California Assemblymember Marc Levine.