Nearly 800 people have declined the vaccine out of more than 1,800 employees, sheriff’s officials reported Thursday.
About half of the Santa Clara County Sheriff Office employees have declined to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, meaning that dozens of staffers are working in jails unvaccinated, according to the office.
Although 861 of the department’s more than 1,800 employees have received both doses of the vaccine, almost 800 more have declined to take the COVID-19 vaccine, sheriff’s officials reported Thursday during the county’s Public Safety and Justice Committee meeting. Another 200 or so employees do not yet qualify to receive it.
The high number of refusals left county supervisors reeling Thursday, particularly as the number of incarcerated people who have been infected surged past 500 since the start of the new year. Of the employees that have declined the vaccine, about 400 work in the custody division.
“I am a little bit speechless,” said County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg. “We cannot significantly reduce or eliminate outbreaks in the jails if every day, we have people coming into the jail who haven’t been vaccinated.”
At least 536 county inmates have gotten COVID-19 since last March, according to the sheriff’s office reporting dashboard, with nearly half of those cases reported since the 2021 began. In early January, the jails reported 36 and 35 new cases within the same week, marking the two highest single-day totals ever. The dashboard has not been updated since Jan. 18.
Sheriff Laurie Smith said “there’s any host of reasons” why staffers have declined the vaccine. Some have cited medical reasons, while others work graveyard shifts that the office says make it difficult to schedule an appointment. A deputies’ union spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
“The fundamental question is can we require it — and if not, what can we do?” Smith said.
The answer is not yet clear from a legal standpoint, County Executive Jeff Smith said. For now, sheriff’s officials have told unvaccinated deputies they must wear N-95 masks; incarcerated people are given cloth masks.
Jeff Smith, however, pushed back on the office’s assertion that the vaccination rate can be blamed on logistical difficulties.
“The main problem is that people are refusing the vaccine,” Jeff Smith said. “It’s not that there is not access.”
The lower vaccination rate contrasts with other public safety departments in the area. Already by Jan. 12, about 71% of the San Jose Fire Department personnel, including emergency medical technicians and paramedics, had received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a city report at that time.
Beginning Jan. 14, the city’s frontline workers in custody settings, law enforcement officers, and 911 dispatchers were expected to start receiving their first doses of the vaccine and fire personnel were slated to get their second dose. The city declined to provide updated statistics to this news organization Thursday.
County Public Defender Molly O’Neal said in a text Friday that her office would “happily take” vaccines refused by the sheriff’s staff because “we desperately need them, want them and we believe in the science.” Last week, dozens of defenders called into the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meeting to ask to be vaccinated or signed a letter calling for the same.
“Any custody staff who refuses to get vaccinated should be moved out of the custodial facility as a danger to incarcerated individuals,” O’Neal added.
Ellenberg requested that “proactive education” or a town hall be hosted to allow deputies to pose questions or work through their anxieties in the coming weeks.
“For the thousands of people that remain in our custody, it’s incumbent upon us to protect them and keep them safe,” Ellenberg said. “To the extent that staff is not contributing to their safety by refusing to be vaccinated, we need to take additional steps to protect the people that don’t have a choice.”
Staff writers Maggie Angst and Robert Salonga contributed to this report.