Nearly half the employees at the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office have turned down a COVID-19 vaccine.
According to a report presented Thursday, nearly 800 employees have refused or delayed getting vaccinated — out of 1,800 total employees. That includes both sworn and civilian staff.
The reasons for turning down the vaccine include hesitancy, pregnancy or a recent COVID-19 diagnosis. About 200 employees still haven’t been offered the vaccine.
These numbers were divulged by the Sheriff’s Office during a county Public Safety and Justice Committee meeting Thursday.
“I am a bit speechless,” said county Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, who chairs the committee, when hearing the numbers. “We can’t significantly reduce or eliminate outbreaks in the jail if every day we have people coming into the jail who haven’t been vaccinated.”
Undersheriff Ken Binder said the numbers don’t come as a surprise.
“Vaccinations are not mandatory, so therefore their refusal is expected,” Binder said. “We had an expectation we were going to have some refusals.”
Sheriff’s officials said many employees may have recently contracted COVID-19, and prevailing advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discourages vaccinations within 90 days of a positive diagnosis.
Some of the refusals are due to other medical conditions, while others are skeptical.
“(These numbers are) counter to the message we’re trying to extend to our two million residents across the county,” Ellenberg said. “Further, it’s worthwhile for the Sheriff’s Office and public health office to dig into the refusals: Perhaps more education is needed.”
Sheriff’s deputies working in the jails are required to submit to regular COVID-19 tests. If a deputy refuses, they will be reassigned from jail duty. No such requirement exists for getting deputies vaccinated, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
According to a Sheriff’s Office dashboard, 13 employees are currently COVID-19 positive. More than 220 employees have contracted the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the dashboard with data on inmates with COVID-19 has not been updated since Jan. 18, due to “reporting issues,” first noticed on Jan. 14, the Sheriff’s Office said. They did not say when the issue would be resolved.
As of Feb. 5, there were nine inmates in custody in isolation with COVID-19. Inmates of the county’s jails went on a hunger strike Jan. 13 in protest of “conditions of confinement and cruel and unusual punishment” related to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The dashboard provides only the real insight for the status of in custody cases,” Ellenberg said. “Not even having a date of when that might come back up is concerning. … This is critical information that the public deserves to have access to.”
Officials from the county’s Probation Department said a similar trend applied to their unit, too. Only about 50% of probation officers have received vaccinations, despite the vast majority being offered one. An exact count of the county’s probation staff was not immediately available.
“It’s very similar to what the Sheriff’s Office mentioned,” said Deputy Chief Probation Officer Nicholas Birchard. Some officers have recently contracted COVID-19 while the rest who declined their shots “just have vaccine anxiety and choose not to get vaccinated,” Birchard said.
Ellenberg asked Sheriff Laurie Smith and County Executive Jeff Smith if employees could be forced to get vaccinated. Neither knew for sure.
Assistant County Counsel Kavita Narayan said her office is looking into whether requiring vaccinations is possible.
Meanwhile, employees at the county Public Defender Office and Independent Defense Counsel Office have not been offered vaccines, said Public Defender Molly O’Neal. The two combined offices total about 150 employees.
O’Neal said the vaccines refused by the Sheriff’s Office employees could have inoculated her entire department.
“You have correctional officers who are declining vaccines, who are hands on with incarcerated individuals,” O’Neal said. “Along comes our staff, who are in court with the very same (inmates) … and who are being exposed to people in the jail who are declining vaccines.”
Ellenberg said vaccines should be offered to people working in the same environments.
The state is currently in Phase 1A and Phase 1B tier 1 of its vaccination plan. Phase 1A consists of health care workers and long-term care residents, many of whom are now in line for their second doses. Phase 1B tier 1 includes individuals age 65 and over as well as those at risk of exposure in education and child care, emergency services and food and agriculture.
The committee on Thursday also addressed grievances from inmates about having insufficient masks within the facility. While inmates are given cloth masks — and many allege they’re not able to wash or replace these masks properly — sheriff’s deputies in the jail are issued N95 masks.
“I think (inmates) should be entitled to the same protection as the staff, particularly if staff is refusing to be vaccinated,” Ellenberg said. “If we want staff to be in N95 masks unvaccinated, then inmates should also have them.”