Omicron wreaks havoc across California prison facilities as staff cases surge

California prisons have reported a staggering rise in Covid cases among staff this month, as the highly contagious Omicron variant has sent infection cases surging across the US.

Staff infections increased 212% in January with more than 3,800 active cases in dozens of state facilities. The surge comes amid debate over a federal judge’s order that all prison staff must be vaccinated, a mandate facing legal challenges from the governor and the corrections officer union.

Currently, 69% of prison workers are fully vaccinated, according to the California department of corrections and rehabilitation, although the percentage varies drastically from prison to prison. At three facilities, fewer than 50% of staff are fully vaccinated, according to the department.

Meanwhile, 80% of inmates in state prisons are fully vaccinated. As cases have risen among the workforce, state prisons have reported 2,358 active infections among incarcerated people over the last two weeks. Infections among incarcerated people rose 301% between 26 December and 2 January.

The state announced last week that it would suspend visits at every facility for 15 days in order to reduce the spread of infections.

“CDCR recognizes visiting is an important way to maintain family and community ties. At the same time, our first priority is the health and safety of those who live in and work in our facilities,” the department said in an announcement.

With 257 active staff cases, the California healthcare facility, Stockton, which houses incarcerated people with long-term medical and mental health needs, currently has the most staff cases of any state prison facility. The prison has a staff vaccination rate of 84%, the highest in the state – workers at prisons with healthcare facilities are required to be vaccinated.

The surge comes as cases rise across California due to the Omicron variant. This weekend the state reported more than 300,000 new cases. Omicron appears to cause less severe illness, particularly among the vaccinated, but it has led to a steep rise in infections that is straining California’s health system.

Attorneys for inmates have warned that unvaccinated prison staff could lead to another deadly Covid surge in state facilities, and alleged that workers are failing to undergo twice weekly testing as required.

Meanwhile, the legal battle over a vaccine mandate for prison workers is still under way. In October 2021, a federal judge ordered that all prison workers must be vaccinated because of the risk they pose to incarcerated people. Gavin Newsom, the California governor who had previously ordered Covid-19 vaccines or testing for all state workers, sought to appeal the mandate.

A federal appeals court in November temporarily blocked the judge’s order, which was supposed to take effect this month. The appeal hearing will be scheduled in March.

Along with corrections officers, law enforcement across California has pushed back against Covid vaccine mandates. The Los Angeles police union sued over the city’s requirement that all employees be vaccinated or have an approved medical or religious exemption, claiming that the order violated their civil rights. This week a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit.

Since the start of the pandemic, 268 people incarcerated in California prisons have died of Covid-19 and more than 54,000 have been infected. Forty-nine prison staff have died of Covid.

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