Yesterday the Outpost reported that more than 50 employees of the Humboldt County Superior Court managed to get vaccinated at a local clinic despite the fact that they’re not yet qualified under California’s multi-phase COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

We reported that Court Administrative Officer Kim Bartleson disagrees with Public Health Director Michele Stephens, who has held close to those state guidelines by refusing to move court staff higher on the vaccine priority list.

Since that story was published, the Outpost has received emails through a California Public Records Act request that show Stephens has also been pressured by Joyce D. Hinrichs, the presiding judge of the Humboldt County Superior Court. 

In an email sent Tuesday, Hinrichs told Stephens she believes court staff and their justice partners should be moved up in line:

I know the issue of vaccination priority is challenging without clear guidance from the State Public Health. Although some of our staff has been vaccinated, I continue to believe that any Court Staff that have not been vaccinated and our justice partners should be designated to be in Tier 1B for vaccination priority at the earliest possible time. Both Los Angeles and San Diego—the two largest judicial systems in the state—have prioritized Court staff and justice partners and are getting vaccinations now.


Stephens responded less than a half hour later, disputing the notion that the state has been unclear in its guidance and expressing disappointment that court staff is trying to jump ahead of seniors and people employed in the food and agricultural sector. Here’s that email in full:

Thank you, Joyce. We have discussed with the state several times over the last couple months as well as my colleagues across other counties and the consistent answer from the state and those colleagues is the courts are not in Tier 1B. So I do feel we have clear guidance from the state.

LA county and San Diego county choosing to include courts was their decision as I understand it. And for LA, with outbreaks and a large, astronomical court system I can see why they did. However, for us, the only thing we’ve done different [from] the state guidance was to delay opening to 65+ in order to prioritize k-12 educators and support staff so more kids could get back in school. We have yet to open to 65-69, and epidemiologically, it’s elder people in our community that are getting severe disease or dying. So that must be our priority, which is still in line with the state’s tier system.

We also have a huge sector, Food and Ag to open to, and arguably, from an equity perspective, they need the vaccine asap. These are grocery store workers, farm workers, fisheries, creameries, restaurant workers, and others. There have been significant cases locally in this sector. There have not been in our courts.

Honestly, I am really disappointed that the Courts went around and circumvented the process. It has created a divide because the others that were not in that group know what happened and you may be aware, it’s now a buzz in the media with at least one story likely to be done on it. It just doesn’t look good.

We are doing our best to continue to be consistent, follow the state’s guidelines and approach vaccination with an equity lens. If or when the state changes that and courts are included we will absolutely get those folks to vaccine appointments.

Michele Stephens, LCSW
DHHS Assistant Director
Public Health Director
Personal Pronouns: She/Her/Hers (What is this?)
529 I Street, Eureka, CA 95501