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Top medical officer for California prisons ousted amid worsening coronavirus outbreak

Richard Winton and Kim Christensen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- As COVID-19 infections rapidly spread through California's prisons, authorities on Monday announced the replacement of the state correction system's top medical officer. The move came as Gov. Gavin Newsom criticized a previous decision to transfer hundreds of inmates from a Chino facility that had been battling an outbreak.

The leadership shakeup occurred as corrections officials reported three more deaths over the July 4 weekend among inmates at San Quentin State Prison, where more than one-third of inmates have tested positive. The death toll is now at six. Most of the facility's COVID-19 infections were reported in the last two weeks, after 121 inmates were transferred there in late May from the California Institution for Men in Chino.

"They should not have been transferred," Newsom said in his public address.

The governor described combating the outbreak at the state's prison system as "a top priority for our administration." He said he hoped San Quentin would be able to reduce its inmate count from more than 4,000 on March 1 to 3,082 in the next few weeks.

"We don't want to just send people out to park benches and homeless shelters," Newsom said. "We have to make sure we responsibly move people out."

On Monday, the federal court-appointed receiver overseeing medical care at the state's prisons announced the removal of Dr. R. Steven Tharratt as the prison system's statewide medical director. Tharratt will now serve as a special health care adviser to the receiver.

 

Statewide, at least 28 inmates have died of COVID-related illnesses. More than 2,400 are currently infected.

"We are in unprecedented times as we deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic," the receiver, J. Clark Kelso, said in a statement. "In order to meet current response needs while also working toward further delegation of medical care back to state control, it has become evident that a reorganization is necessary for long-term sustainability."

Last week, Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine of San Rafael called for Kelso's removal and described the shifting of inmates without contemporaneous testing as "the worst prison health screw-up in state history."

In late May, corrections officials announced that nearly 700 vulnerable inmates from the Chino prison would be transferred to a dozen other corrections facilities around the state. At the time, the Chino prison had reported more than 600 cases of COVID-19 and nine deaths among its inmates, who are in close quarters in dormitory housing.

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