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Amid increasing reports of unvaccinated deputies infecting other deputies – including those who have been vaccinated – with COVID-19, OC Sheriff Don Barnes saying deputies and their supervisors are now required to get vaccinated if they work in the jails.

Barnes emphasised through a spokesperson that the mandatory vaccination is being required by the state, not him. 

Sheriff staff have the lowest self-reported vaccination rate among county employees – just 16% as of last month, compared with 75% of staffers for county supervisors.

Deputies also face the highest number of new workplace infections among county employees.

Barnes attributed the new vaccine mandate – which has exceptions for religious beliefs and approved medical reasons – to a state order from almost three weeks earlier which he says mandates Covid vaccinations of jail employees by Oct. 14.

“The August 19, 2021 order applies to all Deputy Sheriffs, Investigators, Sergeants, Lieutenants, Captains and Commanders” who work in central jails, inmate intake and release, inmate transportation and the Theo Lacy jail, Barnes wrote in a memo Tuesday to all of his employees.

[Click here to read the sheriff’s memo.]

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Just 16% of sheriff staff self-attested to being vaccinated as of last month, compared with 75% of Board of Supervisors staff, according to data Voice of OC obtained through a public records request.

Deputy sheriffs are only about 8 percent of the county government workforce, but account for nearly half of all recent Covid infections among county employees who were exposed at work, according to county data.

The vast majority of sheriff deputies infected with Covid in recent days were exposed at county jails, according to the data.

As of last month, the biggest ongoing outbreak among county government workers is at the sheriff’s jail and headquarters complex, with at least 21 staff members infected.

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Sheriff officials wouldn’t speak to reports received by Voice of OC about a deputy who was reportedly infected by an unvaccinated deputy colleague, saying it’s personal health information.

Voice of OC has been told there have been multiple cases of unvaccinated jail deputies infecting their vaccinated jail deputy colleagues.

“Covid is widespread in the community, some people who have it are asymptomatic, and breakthrough cases are happening regardless of work location,” said sheriff spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

“The Department has implemented protocols and procedures specific to the jails to mitigate the spread of Covid. Those remain in place today and have been effective.”

Through a spokesman, Voice of OC asked Sheriff Barnes what he thinks of the new vaccination mandate and what he has to say to his employees who got vaccinated and are concerned about their health at work.

“This is a mandate from the State,” Barnes said in response.

“I have chosen to be vaccinated, and I am obligated to notify employees of the requirements passed by the State,” he continued.

“What’s most important is that we continue to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our jails through the protocols and practices we have implemented throughout the pandemic.”

The new vaccination mandate was not announced publicly by the Sheriff’s Department. But Voice of OC learned of it and then obtained a copy of the memo from the department.

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The sheriff’s deputies’ union has been pushing back against the state mandate requiring jailhouse workers and certain court employees to be vaccinated, and has been considering a lawsuit against it.

“We have encouraged and assisted in vaccination efforts, but we strongly oppose this vaccine mandate,” said Juan Viramontes, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, in a statement Tuesday.

“Department personnel, regardless of work assignment, have the right and freedom to make their own medical decisions, which includes whether or not to be vaccinated,” he added.

“We have not agreed to the State Order with the County and invoked our right to meet and confer with the County over the effects of the Order.”

Asked what he says to vaccinated deputies who are exposed to Covid from their unvaccinated colleagues, Viramontes said the vaccine doesn’t offer absolute protection from the virus.

“Fully vaccinated does not mean you are immune to COVID,” he said.

“As such, it is the responsibility of everyone to continue to take the proper precautions to protect yourself and others.”

The new vaccination mandate applies to about 700 sworn jail staff who have direct contact with inmates, Braun said in response to questions from Voice of OC.

The jails have a total of about 1,500 staff, including civilians, she said.Coronavirus infections at work were the leading cause of death of American police officers last year as well as the first half of this year.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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