SACRAMENTO – So many people in California’s prisons have been infected with COVID-19 that at least seven of the institutions have crossed a threshold for herd immunity, a Sacramento Bee review of infection data found.
More than 70% of inmates have tested positive for the illness at the seven prisons, enough to minimize the potential for further spread, experts say.
And more than 60% have tested positive at seven other institutions, falling just short of the threshold. The infection rates don’t include vaccinations, which likely have pushed more of the state’s 35 prisons into herd immunity territory.
The figures show the extent of the pandemic’s sweep through the state’s prisons, where one in four employees and half of inmates have tested positive since the first California inmate came down with COVID-19 on March 22. Twenty-six employees and 212 inmates have died and the virus has torpedoed morale, according to corrections data and employee interviews.
“I had eight people die that I worked with over the last couple years, and it wasn’t from anything but COVID, so that’s kind of a rough part of it,” said Garrett Smith, 54, a recently retired correctional officer who worked at California Health Care Facility in Stockton.
At least two outbreaks – at San Quentin State Prison and California State Prison, Corcoran – resulted from transfers of infected inmates. But most of the worst outbreaks occurred when infections were surging around the U.S. in November and December, suggesting employees carried the virus into the prisons where it took hold and spread.
Rates of infection have ranged from 10% at Northern California’s remote Pelican Bay State Prison to 100% at the California Rehabilitation Center in Riverside County.
Active infections have dropped to their lowest levels since April of last year, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an email.
The data suggest the worst of the pandemic is over inside the state’s prisons, and that risks of the institutions spreading the virus to communities – particularly in rural areas – may be receding.
Simas said the prison system faced universal hurdles related to testing and obtaining safety equipment and the unique challenges of running a 24/7 operation involving hundreds of thousands of people and their loved ones. She said the corrections department and California Correctional Health Care Services have “been strongly committed to responding” to the emergency and to protecting employees and inmates.
The department now tests widely and provides masks and safety equipment, Simas said. Early releases of low-level inmates and those near the end of their sentences have reduced the prison population to its lowest level in 30 years.