‘Catastrophe’: How California’s worst coronavirus outbreak burst from San Quentin into their home in San Jose

After every grueling workday, often double shifts guarding prisoners at San Quentin, 55-year-old Sgt. Gilbert Polanco would drive the hour-and-a-half home to San Jose, strip off his khaki uniform in the foyer and head straight to the shower.

He was desperately trying not to bring the killer coronavirus home from California’s Death Row.

His wife, Patricia, so worried these days that she could barely sleep, tossed his clothes into the quick wash cycle each night, no matter the hour — on hot with a splash of vinegar.

“He would say, ‘I’m scared. It’s growing,’” she said of the virus that was spreading through the notorious 168-year-old prison. “‘We’re doing everything to keep it contained, but it’s impossible.’”

Then on the last Friday night in June, Gilbert came home sick. Within days, he had infected both Patricia and their 22-year-old daughter, Selena, extending the reach of a tragedy that had started a month earlier with a colossal mistake by prison officials: an inmate transfer that would unleash the deadly virus on a destructive path through at least five California prisons that spanned the state, exploding in San Quentin into what may be the largest outbreak anywhere in the U.S.

Sgt. Gilbert Polanco, a prison guard at San Quentin, from a recent family photo. (Courtesy of the Polanco Family)

“There’s no end to the downstream impacts of what, quite frankly, was the worst prison screw-up in state history,” said state Assemblyman Marc Levine who represents the Marin County area that includes San Quentin.

In the days after the arrival of the five-bus caravan from a state prison in the Southern California city of Chino, not only did the virus sweep through San Quentin’s 1930s-era Badger unit to its notorious Death Row, it eventually escaped the prison walls with veteran guards like Gilbert Polanco and found its way into a green-trimmed house in San Jose, now marked with a hand-drawn warning taped to the front door: “Please… No Visitors.”

In less than two months, 19 inmates have died, including at least eight on Death Row, more than half the number of condemned killers executed here in four decades. The official number of prisoners infected has reached 2,172 — about two-thirds of the prison population — but many refused to be tested.

And alongside the prisoners plagued by a pandemic in a poorly ventilated germ-ridden lockup are the 258 prison guards and other staff who got sick too — and ultimately brought it home.

“To me, it’s a catastrophe,” said Patricia Polanco, who along with her daughter has recovered from COVID-19 but is on edge every time the phone rings.

More than a month after coming home sick, Gilbert Polanco is so ill that doctors at Kaiser San Jose hospital have twice called to say he might not make it through the night. He is breathing on a ventilator and lying prone to relieve the pressure on his lungs. His kidneys are failing and he went through his seventh round of dialysis …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Health


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