For the fourth time this month an inmate has died from complications brought on by COVID-19, bringing the total number of inmates who have died from the coronavirus to 12.
The 69-year-old inmate was serving a 60-year sentence, suspended after 30 years served for aggravated sexual assault and kidnapping with a firearm convictions, according to the state Department of Correction. His earliest release date would have been in 2029, officials said.
On Thursday a 47-year-inmate who had been recently cleared for furlough died of COVID-19 after a three-week hospital stay. Two other inmates died days apart in early December and one died in November during a surge of positive COVID-19 cases that is also leaving the DOC with staff shortages across the board, officials said.
The 69-year-old inmate was taken from the MacDougall-Walker Medical Isolation Unit to an outside hospital on Nov. 26 where he died Monday.
The death comes as the discussion about whether inmates should get the COVID vaccine before other groups of people heats up.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), a committee under the Centers for Disease Control, mentioned the staff in correctional settings Sunday, but didn’t say anything about the inmates.
“I think the collective concern here expressed has been that those groups are often at equal risk possibly for different reasons,” Zita Lazzarini of UConn Health, said Monday. Lazzarini is a member of the Allocation subcommittee of the Vaccine Advisory Group.
She said the residents may be very vulnerable but the staff would have more contacts because of the nature of their jobs “especially where the congregate settings are high density.”
No decision has been made yet when it comes to vaccinating inmates.
“There’s still some work left to do on when those recommendations are finalized,” Josh Geballe, Gov. Ned Lamont’s chief operating officer, said.
He said the Vaccine Advisory Group has not completed its work yet and will make recommendations soon.
“It’s one of the many difficult decisions they will have to make as we assess the prioritization,” Geballe said. “I know the governor wants to give them the time to do their work.”
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, tweeted that he thought inmates were in the second phase of vaccinations, but that was before the ACIP created a new priority category.
“Again, congregate – setting prone to sickness – sitting ducks. We know better we should act accordingly,” Winfield tweeted.
In the meantime, the Department of Correction is working with fewer staff and it’s impacting services offered in the prisons.
As of Monday, 274 staff members of the agency’s 6,000 employees were out with either asymptomatic or symptomatic cases of COVID-19, said agency spokeswoman Karen Martucci.
“We are experiencing the same uptick (in positive COVID-19 cases) the community is challenged with,” Martucci said. “The holiday commissary program provides an opportunity for the population to order specialty items not normally available for purchase and increases the spending limit to $125. To ensure that the population doesn’t miss out on this annual opportunity, we are extended the time frame and will reconvene with routine spending limits once staffing levels have stabilized.”
The agency has been testing staff weekly and inmates biweekly since early December when COVID-19 cases began to escalate quickly after a period of low transmission, much like the rest of the state.
The DOC had touted a low percentage of inmates testing positive for COVID-19 during a mass round of testing that ended on Nov. 13. But less than a week after announcing that there were only 44 asymptomatic inmates, COVID-19 cases exploded in the prisons with nearly 300 inmates testing positive for the disease.
As of Monday there were 271 symptomatic inmates with and another 319 who were asymptomatic, according to the DOC website. That’s an increase of 86 inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 since Friday. As of Friday, 2,553 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since the coronavirus pandemic began impacting the state in March.