A federal appeals panel overturned a judge’s order requiring all prison staff in California to be vaccinated against COVID-19, a mandate that had been opposed by the state government and the politically powerful prison guards’ union, reports Courthouse News Service. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the state and the union that California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s failure to implement a vaccine requirement for all prison staff, as opposed to only those working in a health care setting, didn’t amount to deliberate indifference to inmates’ serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The policy wasn’t deliberately indifferent, the appellate panel said, because the state took significant action to address the health risks posed by COVID-19, including making vaccines and booster doses available to prisoners and correctional staff, facilitating staff and prisoner vaccination, requiring staff to wear personal protective equipment, and ensuring unvaccinated staff members regularly test for COVID-19.
“A decision to adopt an approach that is not the most medically efficacious does not itself establish deliberate indifference,” the panel found. “And the record does not include evidence demonstrating how much more effective a vaccine mandate would be compared to defendants’ existing measures to mitigate the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in a custodial environment, nor is it clear from the record that this is an unquantifiable figure.” U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar had ordered the state to carry out a court-appointed receiver’s recommendation that all prison staff be vaccinated. Though his administration had ordered vaccinations or testing for all state employees, including those in the prison system, Gov. Gavin Newsom opposed the prison mandate. He was joined by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which argued that 700 of its members might have chosen to resign or retire rather than accept the vaccine, leading to staffing shortages.