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COVID uptick at Connecticut prisons as worker vax rates lag

November 23, 2021 GMT

The Connecticut Department of Correction, which has the lowest employee vaccination rate among executive branch state agencies at 65%, has seen a recent uptick in COVID-19 infections among staff and inmates, according to new state data.

As of Tuesday morning, 107 inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 and were symptomatic were being housed in the medical isolation unit at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, according to an agency spokesperson. Thirty-five of those inmates were scheduled to complete their isolation period by the end of the week.

In comparison, there were 31 inmates with COVID-19 in the same unit on Aug. 18, though population numbers in the unit fluctuate.

Inmates infected with the coronavirus but who are asymptomatic are separated from the general population while completing the quarantine period but are not moved from the facility where they are housed. There are 149 asymptomatic inmates, according to the latest agency count.

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More than 800 inmates tested positive for the virus from Aug. 18 to Nov. 18, according to state data. Twenty-one inmates have died from the coronavirus since the pandemic began and three have died since Aug. 18. About 9,500 people are incarcerated in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, state statistics show the total number of DOC staff who’ve tested positive increased by 15%, or by 262 workers, between Aug. 18 and Nov. 18. As of Tuesday, there were 110 correctional employees out of work recovering from COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 1,971 staff have tested positive, representing 36% of the current staffing total of 5,444.

Karen Martucci, director of external affairs for DOC, acknowledged the agency is currently “seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases” but stressed that the department has “consistently remained below the community positivity rate.” While the state reported a 3.53% positivity rate on Monday she said the overall infection rate in state prisons was 2.1%.

“We know that congregate settings are more vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 so clearly our focused efforts that include mass bi-weekly testing, intense cleaning protocols and vaccinations, prove that the Department of Correction’s pandemic plan is working to minimize infection,” she wrote in an email.

It’s unclear how long the mass testing of correctional workers will continue. On Monday, data released by Gov. Ned Lamont’s office showed 1,290 unvaccinated DOC workers are currently getting tested regularly. The cost of that testing is being picked up by the state, using federal coronavirus relief funds.

Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer, said the administration has agreed to cover the testing costs for as long as Lamont’s public health emergency remains in place. It’s currently scheduled to expire in February, but it has been extended multiple times before.

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Asked what happens next, Geballe said, “We’ll evaluate it as we get closer” to that date.

The data released Monday also showed that 12% of correctional workers or 634 were noncompliant with Lamont’s executive order that requires most state employees to be vaccinated or else to get regularly tested. It was the highest rate of noncompliance among the executive branch state agencies. That’s up from 2% of correctional workers who were noncompliant on Oct. 7.

The Department of Children and Families had the second highest number of noncompliant workers at 146. But that figure represented only 5% of the 2,800 workers at the agency.

The DOC’s spokesperson, Martucci, said the “vast majority” of correctional employees listed as noncompliant have met the requirements of the executive order in terms of getting vaccinated or participating in weekly testing. They appear on the list, she said, for “technical reasons including: difficulty uploading results to the app, and new employees whose ID numbers have yet to be logged into the system.”

She said the agency is working to resolve the issues as quickly as possible to reduce the noncompliant number of employees. To date, she said, no DOC employees have been placed on leave solely due to not complying with Lamont’s order.