SACRAMENTO (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday temporarily blocked an order requiring all California prison staff to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or have a religious or medical exemption.
A panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals has granted a request to suspend the September lower court order pending appeal. It also accelerated the hearing process by setting a December 13 deadline for opening briefings.
The vaccination mandate was supposed to come into effect on January 12, but the appeals court is blocking enforcement until sometime in March, when the appeal hearing is scheduled.
The judge who issued the vaccination mandate followed the recommendation of a court-appointed trustee elected to manage state prison health care after a federal judge found in 2005 that California was not providing adequate medical care to inmates.
In addition to requiring COVID-19 shots for prison staff, U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar required vaccinations or waivers for inmates seeking face-to-face visits or working outside prisons, including incarcerated firefighters.
The stay “exposes both prison staff and the incarcerated population to a greater risk of infection,” said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which represents inmates in a long-running lawsuit over medical conditions in state prisons.
The mandate was opposed by State Prison Service and Governor Gavin Newsom, although his administration had previously ordered vaccinations or tests for all state employees, including correctional officers.
The politically powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association had argued that the mandate could cause staff shortages if employees refuse to comply.
Messages to the governor’s office and corrections officers seeking comment about Friday’s stay were not immediately returned.
The original vaccination order was intended to prevent another COVID-19 outbreak, such as the one that killed 28 inmates and a correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison last year.
“Once the virus enters a facility, it is very difficult to control, and the dominant route through which it enters a prison is through infected personnel,” Tigar reasoned.
According to statistics from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), more than 50,000 inmates — more than half of California’s state prisoners — have had a confirmed case of COVID-19 and at least 242 have died from the disease.
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