The request comes after three court employees died of Covid-19 in the last month.
LOS ANGELES (CN) — Los Angeles County Superior Court officials asked the county health department on Tuesday to prioritize the Covid vaccinations of thousands of court employees who continue to work in courtrooms across the county.
California continues to struggle to get its vaccination program off the ground, largely because of a limited supply of vaccines. LA County has received less than 700,000 doses according to county health data, despite a population of 10 million. Meanwhile, Governor Gavin Newsom recently shifted the state’s focus by adding people over 65 to the list of top vaccination priorities along with health care workers.
LA County Superior Court Presiding Judge Eric Taylor’s request to prioritize court employees comes just weeks after the deaths of three court employees who may have been exposed to the virus while at work.
“The court has worked tirelessly to keep the doors of justice open in furtherance of our commitment and duty to uphold constitutional, statutory, and legislative mandates as the third branch of government in our democracy,” Taylor said in a statement.
Taylor, who was recently elected as presiding judge, oversees the administration of all 38 courthouses and 600 courtrooms in LA County. Emergency orders to delay some trials, the mandate for face masks, hand sanitizer stations and plexiglass dividers are just some of the many enhancements the court rolled out, said Taylor.
But with so much doubt cast on when court staff can be immunized, Taylor asked LA County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer to move court employees higher up the vaccination priority list.
“I am deeply grateful for all you do to keep the public safe and the support you have provided us all during these very difficult times,” Taylor wrote to Ferrer.
Roughly 5,000 people work in the courts and 2,500 attorneys from the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office and other judicial officers visit the courts regularly, Taylor said. Approximately 1,000 employees or 25% of the court workforce is working remotely, according to a court spokesperson.
Meanwhile, the virus continues to spread nearly unabated in LA County.
“Nonetheless, the hardworking essential workers of our court must continue to carry out many of their duties in-person,” Taylor said.
Michael Ferreira, president of the court interpreters’ union, said the courts could have done so much earlier in the pandemic.
“It’s kind of like the barn door is open,” Ferreira said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Interpreters visit several courtrooms a day and some are in such high demand that many go to multiple courthouses.
“We’ve always had a higher risk of exposure,” said Ferreira, president of the California Federation of Interpreters, Local 39000.
Interpreters have asked for the courts to roll out more remote appearances, but Ferreira said that’s been slow to roll out.
“They’re dragging their feet. I understand the logistical complexity that goes with all of this, but dependent care impacted need it the most,” he said. “Well, now that we actually need it they are so slow to expand it to the people who actually need it,” he said.
Ferreira acknowledged the process to get more video access is complicated, especially in a court system as large as LA County, and there are many types of hearings that cannot be served by remote interpreters. But much could be done remotely and people are still being asked to appear in person.
“Less people in the courts means less transmission. That could be safer for everyone,” said Ferreira. “They didn’t have to do it this way.”
He added: “You can pound all the press releases you want,” said Ferreira. “What we need now is action.”
The court made its request to the county health department Jan. 22 — nearly a year after the county’s first confirmed coronavirus case. The health department said the court is aware of current vaccination priorities mandated by the state.
Currently, county health is investigating Covid outbreaks at three courthouses for Covid-19 outbreaks, including the Chatsworth Courthouse, Metropolitan Courthouse and Stanley Mosk Courthouse. County health investigators did not find any recent violations at the Metropolitan and Stanley Mosk courthouses, according to a department spokesperson, while the Chatsworth investigation is ongoing.
The court’s request comes as California officials vow to take a stronger role overseeing the distribution of vaccines at the local level.
After weeks of criticism about the lagging vaccination pace and the millions of unused doses sitting in hospital freezers, officials on Tuesday unveiled a new scheme they claim will speed things up. So far the state has mostly deferred to individual counties to sign up and determine who can receive the vaccine, but beginning in mid-February there will be a more uniform eligibility system.
In addition to the health care industry and residents over the age of 65, teachers, child care personnel, emergency services workers, food service employees and agricultural workers will soon be able to receive the vaccine in all counties.
Under the plan that will be led by California Health and Human Services chief Mark Ghaly and Yolanda Richardson, secretary of the Government Operations Agency, the state will partner with a private third party to streamline the allocation of future vaccines and will reward hospitals and other providers for immunizing low-income residents and people of color. In addition, a website has been launched to notify Californians when their turn is up.
The officials said the goal is to maximize the state’s supply without the confusion that has riddled the vaccine rollout over the last seven weeks.
“Californians were understandably confused by mixed messages,” Richardson acknowledged in a press conference.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, California has used 2.4 million of the 5.3 million total doses distributed thus far.
The Newsom administration claims the new system will result in a faster, clearer, top-down approach. But when pressed by reporters as to exactly how the third-party administrator will speed up distribution, Richardson gave a fuzzy response.
“The administrator gives an opportunity to leverage both health care delivery system expertise and have some expertise around scale,” Richardson responded vaguely.
Another reporter asked when Central Valley counties including Fresno would get more supply, as efforts to vaccinate farmworkers have sputtered. Again, Richardson offered a noncommittal answer.
“I’m not specifically aware of Fresno County’s specific situation but definitely because you’ve highlighted that, will reach out to them to work on how they’re going to be able to serve their community,” Richardson said.