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San Quentin coronavirus disaster exposes a dangerous road to 'herd immunity'

Rong-Gong Lin Ii and Kim Christensen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SAN FRANCISCO -- For critics of aggressive stay-at-home orders, the solution seems clear: Reopen the economy and enough people will eventually become infected by the novel coronavirus to achieve "herd immunity" even before a vaccine is available.

The idea is that eventually, a sufficient percentage of the population will have survived COVID-19 and become immune, which in turn protects the rest of the uninfected population by interrupting the spread of the virus.

But the disastrous situation unfolding at San Quentin State Prison over the last two months has become the latest of several cautionary tales that show how any effort to achieve herd immunity before a vaccine is available would come with enormous costs in terms of illness and death.

COVID-19 spread unchecked across California's oldest prison in ways that stunned public health experts, despite efforts to control the disease. As of Monday, there had been more than 2,200 cases and 25 deaths, among a population of more than 3,260 people. On Sunday, a guard became one of the latest to die.

That means more than two-thirds of the prison's population has been infected, said Dr. George Rutherford, epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at UC San Francisco.

And though new cases have slowed, they are still occurring -- with 60 reported in the last two weeks -- suggesting herd immunity has not yet been achieved.


San Quentin's death toll translates to a mortality rate of about 767 people dying out of every 100,000 persons.

If that same rate occurred across California, that would translate to a staggering 300,000 deaths statewide -- many times larger than California's cumulative death toll of more than 10,400. Nationally, that would be equivalent to 2.5 million deaths; the current cumulative U.S. death toll is more than 163,000.

"You couldn't help but get it -- you're staying in a place with no ventilation," Michael Kirkpatrick, 62, told The Times a week after he was freed. Kirkpatrick was released from San Quentin on July 13 after his parole on a burglary conviction was expedited because of the outbreak. He tested positive for the virus and has since recovered.

Kirkpatrick said his cellmate was infected, along with most of the rest of the inmates in the 50 or so cells on his tier.


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