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The San Quentin prison guard dies from COVID-19 amid a widespread explosion



SAN JOSE – Doctors had told Sgt. Gilbert Polanco’s family that could happen at any time. And on Sunday, the San Quentin correctional officer who contracted the coronavirus inside the prison walls of the nation’s worst outbreak died.

He was my best friend. He was my mother’s true love, “said Polanco’s 22-year-old daughter, Selena.” He was just an amazing man in every way.

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

Gilbert Polanco, 55, a native of San Jose, had been hospitalized since July 3 and had been intubated for weeks.

Of the 261 virus-infected staff at San Quentin Prison, Polanco is the first to be lost and the 9th correctional worker to die from the virus in California. Of the 2,231 San Quentin inmates infected with the virus, 24 have died.

San Quentin had been virus-free until state prison officials made a fateful decision to transfer 121 inmates from the state prison to Chino, where it had caught an explosion. About 25 tested positive for the virus after arriving in San Quentin on May 30 and spreading from there.

“Sergeant Gilbert Polanco is the best example of the CDCR and his passing saddens us all deeply,” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Ralph Diaz said in a statement Sunday. “His commitment to public service will not be forgotten.”

“Our hearts are broken,” said San Quentin Acting Ron Broomfield.

“Sgt. Gilbert Polanco demonstrated an unwavering dedication and bravery as a peace officer working the front line every day during this devastating pandemic,” Broomfield said in a statement. “His memory is held in the hearts of all the men and women who continue to fight this deadly virus in San Quentin. We mourn with his family and pray for their peace and comfort in the midst of their immense loss.”

As dozens of prison guards became ill with the virus, Polanco made additional shifts to help. He traveled daily from his home in San Jose. He started coughing on Father’s Day, June 17th.

The Polanco family, including his son Vincent, recently at home from a U.S. military station in South Korea, said they had felt hopeful within days. Doctors at the Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center had started a plasma treatment and removed it from the steroids. For the first time in 10 days, they were able to position him on his back, Polanco’s wife, Patricia Polanco, had told this news organization.

“He is not from the forest yet,” the doctors had told him. “These are steps for babies.”

But just before dawn Sunday morning, “his heart just stopped,” Selena said.

“He was everything,” said Selena from the family home in San Jose. “I can go on forever, but it really hurts.”


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