The outbreak at San Quentin State Prison has claimed its first life among the prison staff, and it's San Jose native Sgt. Gilbert Polanco.
Polanco took precautions to avoid becoming infected, but nonetheless came home with symptoms in June and passed the virus on to his wife and 22-year-old daughter before requiring hospitalization himself. The 55-year-old guard, who had worked at the prison for 34 years, first developed a cough on Father's Day, June 17, and was hospitalized two weeks later. He died on Sunday morning, as the Mercury News reports, when his heart stopped.
"Our hearts are broken," said acting San Quentin Warden Ron Broomfield in a statement to ABC 7. "We mourn together with his family and pray for their peace and comfort in the midst of their immeasurable loss."
And California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Ralph Diaz said in a statement, "Sergeant Gilbert Polanco is an example of the best of CDCR and his passing deeply saddens us all. His dedication to public service will not be forgotten."
Polanco's is the 25th death to come from the outbreak at San Quentin, and the first to be among the staff — though 261 staff members have been infected thus far. There remain 135 active cases among inmates at the prison, as of Monday, with over 2,000 who were infected and have now recovered. We first learned of Polanco's case a week ago, and he was not the first San Quentin guard to land in the hospital.
"He was my best friend," says daughter Selena Polanco to the Mercury News. "He was my mom’s true love. He was just an amazing man in every way."
Polanco joined the prison staff when he was just 21, in 1986, and raised his family beginning at a small house on the prison grounds in 1993, where his son was born.
When he became infected with COVID-19 in June, the outbreak at the prison — the result of a transfer of an unknown number of infected inmates from a different men's prison, Chino, which was having an outbreak in May — was in full swing and growing out of control. Several days after Polanco was showing symptoms, 200 San Quentin inmates had tested positive, but the real number was likely far higher at that point. Within days, over 1,000 cases had been confirmed at the prison, and the number would ultimately get over 2,000 before finally slowing in recent weeks.
The New York Times has broken out the total case counts at a dozen prison outbreaks across the country, and the San Quentin outbreak remains the biggest. The next biggest cluster at a California prison, at Chino, remains half the size at 1,211 — likely the result of San Quentin having a large number of old-style cell blocks that lack doors.
Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-Marin) has called it "The worst prison screw-up in state history."
"To me, it’s a catastrophe," said Patricia Polanco, speaking last week to the Mercury News. "Why would they let this happen? If they were doing their job, they would have known this would be dangerous."
Photo courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation