Jessica Cejnar / Friday, May 8 @ 5:35 p.m. / Emergencies, Health, Local Government, Prison
(Updated) Rehwaldt to Newsom: COVID Outbreak at Pelican Bay Would Be 'Disaster in the Making' For Del Norte
(Editor's note: Story has been updated at 4 p.m. Saturday to clarify that Del Norte Healthcare District Board chairman Dr. Kevin Caldwell indicated that Rehwaldt showed a draft cease and desist order for the governor to county counsel's office, not the county counsel herself.)
Del Norte County’s public health officer has asked California Governor Gavin Newsom for guidance on curtailing inmate transfers into and out of Pelican Bay State Prison during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though it wasn’t the cease and desist order Del Norte Healthcare District representatives wanted him to issue, Dr. Warren Rehwaldt told Newsom he was concerned that the virus would make its way into the prison either via a worker on site or a transferring staff member.
Others, he wrote in an April 30 letter to the governor, worried about the inmates themselves and were dismayed to learn that transfers have continued, even though they’ve been cut back.
Rehwaldt told Newsom that many in the community wanted him to issue a cease and desist order to the prison and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, though he felt that it would be counterproductive.
“Personally, I do not see the value of creating a pointless dispute,” he said. “But, having said that, it also occurred to me that a local order might be one that your office might choose to support, in an effort to protect the inmates and the communities surrounding the facility where they are housed and using Pelican Bay as an example. I am certain that mine is not the only jurisdiction where continuing transfers and the possible creation of an outbreak has been a topic of concern.”
Healthcare District representatives Dr. Greg Duncan and Dohn Henion drafted an order for Rehwaldt to bring to County Counsel Elizabeth Cable following the district’s April 28 meeting.
At that meeting the district’s chairman, Dr. Kevin Caldwell said, prison guards had told him transfers into and out of the facility were continuing despite assurances from CDCR to the contrary.
Caldwell didn’t have exact numbers and said none of the guards were willing to go on the record with those statements.
Duncan and Henion finished a draft of the order by the afternoon of April 29, Caldwell told the Wild Rivers Outpost and KFUG News Now! on Wednesday.
Caldwell said Rehwaldt showed the order to Cable's office, which indicated they “didn’t want to do it.”
“County counsel has no power over Dr. Rehwaldt in a pandemic-medical emergency,” Caldwell said. “So, he said, instead they decided that he would send another letter to the governor, asking what was going on.”
Caldwell said Wednesday he had asked to see a copy Rehwaldt’s letter but hadn’t heard back from him.
On Thursday, Rehwaldt said while he felt the Healthcare District’s idea for issuing a cease and desist order was worth reviewing, “as a strategy it was not very sound.” He said the Board of Supervisors would also have to approve his sending a cease and desist letter to a state department.
Caldwell has been concerned about inmate transfers to Pelican Bay since the Healthcare District’s March 24 meeting. On March 26, the district attempted to keep a CDCR bus from bringing inmates to the prison with a restraining order, but failed.
Caldwell and his colleagues are also concerned about staff movement at the prison, arguing that as essential workers they should be held to a higher standard when it comes to protecting themselves from infection and from transmitting the virus than others in the community.
Though inmate transfers among CDCR facilities have been reduced, a total of 11 prisoners were moved to Pelican Bay on or after April 20, Lt. Del Higgerson, the facility’s public information officer, told KFUG’s Paul Critz on Wednesday.
“All of the transfers were a result of court-related purposes and those returning are immediately placed into a 14-day quarantine,” Higgerson told Critz via email.
CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas told the Outpost that as of April 24, inmates leaving CDCR custody for longer than one day to attend court aren’t allowed back until intake resumes.
Pelican Bay has been COVID-19 free as of Friday, according to CDCR’s Population COVID-19 Tracking web page.
Systemwide, there are 382 active cases among CDCR’s inmate population and four deaths, according to the web page.
There are no positive cases of COVID-19 amongst Pelican Bay’s staff, though those are self reported, according to CDCR.
In his letter to the governor, Rehwaldt said he’s concerned that while CDCR is following the “spirit of the rule,” inmate transfers continue, while the issue of officers remain is still an open question. He asked for input both from the governor and from those planning for potential outbreaks within CDCR’s system.
“In our county, if it happens, it will be a huge drain on resources locally,” he said. “And if timed at a moment when our sole hospital is already full with a community outbreak, it would be a disaster in the making. I do not wish to see a scenario such as that play out if there is still a way to forestall the event.”
As of 4:47 p.m. Friday, a total of 432 COVID-19 tests have been administered in Del Norte County, according to the Public Health Branch. The results for five cases are pending while 424 patients have tested negative. Del Norte’s three positive cases have since recovered, according to the Public Health Branch.