Inmates at San Quentin Trapped in Country’s Largest Coronavirus Outbreak

Inmates at San Quentin Trapped in Country’s Largest Coronavirus Outbreak

Northern California’s San Quentin State Prison is currently home to the nation’s largest coronavirus outbreak, with at least one-third of inmates testing positive since July.

As of August, 25 inmates or guards had succumbed to COVID-19. Many of the inmates believe they were deliberately targeted, with some saying the virus was introduced to kill them off.

The prison’s mortality rate is 767 people dying out of every 100,000 persons, an astonishing rate when applied to the general population. That is a national equivalent of 2.5 million COVID-19 deaths. The current U.S. mortality rate is 50 people dead out of every 100,000 persons, still among the world’s highest.

Many of the conspiracy theories are baseless, as is true of most conspiracy theories, but there is no question the situation could have been prevented.

Not Closing the Containment Window

In March, California had an initial inmate testing positive for coronavirus. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDRC”) had a “critical window” to contain the virus, and it failed.

Lawyers fought to have prisoners with health conditions that would make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and those whose parole dates were near released. The CDRC pushed back, citing other measures it was taking to protect inmates and planning to transfer inmates between prisons. No health authorities seemed to think the latter was a wise idea, but CDRC officials did so anyway.

Some inmates from the coronavirus-ravaged California Institute for Men in Chino were moved to San Quentin on May 30. While only those testing negative for coronavirus were supposed to move, some of the tests had been performed a week earlier. Security personnel and bus drivers assisting with the move were not tested. There is no definite way to know what triggered the fierce outbreak in San Quentin, but the move was a likely culprit.

Once San Quentin inmates began getting sick en masse after the transfers, it is easy to understand why many of them thought the system wanted them dead.

Unified Command Center

In mid-August, the CDRC updated a report on conditions in the prison. It noted the establishment of a Unified Command Center at San Quentin to coordinate medical and custody responses to COVID-19 patients. An ambulance from the Emergency Medical Services Authority is on hand to transfer patients to outside facilities for treatment when necessary.

Those with COVID-19 have been placed in segregated units. The CDRC stressed this was not meant to punish those inmates but to prevent further spread. There is a large tent with air conditioning on the grounds that serves as a place to treat COVID-19 patients at the facility.

The Costs of Herd Immunity

San Quentin has inadvertently become the poster child for the disaster of the “herd immunity” theory. That is the concept that eventually, enough of the population survives COVID-19 and is thus immune. The theory goes that the uninfected are protected because the virus’ spread has been interrupted. That is not what is happening in California’s oldest prison.

Instead, the virus may have to infect as many as 50 percent of the population before achieving herd immunity, which Dr. George Rutherford, epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at UC San Francisco, says comes “at a large cost of mortality and severe morbidity.”

Inmates are probably suspicious that they were the “guinea pigs” for the herd immunity theory. It is unlikely the CDRC did this deliberately. Sometimes, the idea that something was done on purpose is more acceptable than realizing it occurred by sheer incompetence.


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