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San Quentin COVID-19 Outbreak Spreads To Susanville Prison, Threatens Inmate Firefighting Work Crews

SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) -- A new threat from the out-of-control COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin State Prison, where nearly a third of the inmate population has become infected with the disease, came to light Wednesday during a state Senate hearing probing the handling of the crisis by corrections officials.

Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who chairs the Public Safety Subcommittee, said the transfer of inmates from San Quentin to the California Correctional Center in Susanville has now triggered an outbreak at that prison, which houses vitally-needed inmate wildfire-fighting teams.

"The subsequent transfers from San Quentin to the correctional facility in Susanville -- this happened after the transfer (of infected inmates) from Chino (to San Quentin) now has that facility with over 200 cases," she said. "Susanville is the pipeline for our fire camps -- and we're in fire season."

Skinner said another inmate who transferred from San Quentin to Sacramento led to the nurse and state prison employee who processed him testing positive for the virus.

"These and the original transfers (from Chino to San Quentin) raise legitimate concerns and anger over the (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) CDCR handling of the pandemic," she said.

She added that the San Quentin outbreak not only threatened inmates but also residents living in her district.

"The now major outbreak at San Quentin threatens the incarcerated people and staff there, but also Bay Area hospitals and local residents," she said.

Clark Kelso, the federal receiver assigned by a judge to oversee health care in the state prison system, said state officials relayed on weeks old test results to determine it was safe to transfer inmates from Chino to San Quentin.

"The inmates had tested negative for the disease before they were moved to San Quentin," Kelso said. "But many of those tests were 2-3 weeks old -- far too old to be an indicator for the absence of the virus."

Once the inmates arrived at San Quentin, they were tested again.

"San Quentin is in crisis," he said. "Upon retesting at San Quentin, 25 out of the 125 inmates tested positive and San Quentin almost immediately fell behind the virus."

Among the conditions at the facility that contributed to the quick spread, Kelso said, was the five-tier structure of the cell blocks. He also said hundreds of inmates were refusing to be tested.

Kelso also said state officials were setting up a mobile medical care facility at the prison.

As of Wednesday morning, there were 1,313 confirmed active COVID-19 cases among the inmates housed at the prison. Of those at least 40 have been transferred out of the prison under heavy security to local hospitals for treatment, filling up critical care and ICU beds.

There have been 22 deaths statewide in the prison system. None yet were confirmed at San Quentin. One of the San Quentin inmates who tested positive, 71-year-old Richard Eugene Stitely, was discovered dead in his cell last week. The official cause of death was still pending.

While medical personnel were scrambling to treat the largest influx of patients in months, local lawmakers were joining the chorus demanding Gov. Gavin Newsom begin releasing some inmates to ease the congestion at San Quentin. Currently, there are 3,774 inmates housed at the facility.

During a San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, Supervisors Dean Preston Preston, Hillary Ronen, Shammann Walton and Matt Haney also introduced a resolution calling for the immediate reduction of inmates at San Quentin.

Supervisors blamed confined settings and shared spaces like showers, restrooms and common areas in an already overcrowded facility for the continued spread of the disease.

"This isn't across the country or globe, this is right across the Bay," Haney said. "There are San Franciscans that are incarcerated there, and San Franciscans that work there who are gravely at risk or who are already infected. There are solutions that can be implemented right now that can save lives. The state of California has a responsibility to those in our custody, and those who are employed in these facilities, to not put them in environments where they will get sick with a deadly virus."

Figures released by the Marin IJ newspaper on Monday showed 22 San Quentin inmates have been hospitalized in Marin County -- seven at either MarinHealth Medical Center in Greenbrae or Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Rafael.

Dr. Matt Willis, the county's public health officer, told the paper that state protocol dictates that inmates who are critically ill and need immediate attention be brought by ambulance to the closest hospital.

"So Marin County ends up being burdened by those types of patients," Willis said.

The COVID-19 ward at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco has filled up and Seton Medical Center in Daly City was treating 12 inmates, three in ICU.

"This list changes," Willis told the paper. "But the point is that it's harder and harder for San Quentin medical staff to find hospitals able to accept inmates."

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