Although Gov. Ned Lamont said last week that he wanted “forward-facing” state employees — including those who work with inmates — vaccinated against COVID-19, the administration has yet to discuss requiring vaccinations with correction union officials.
“Any vaccination mandate is a subject of collective bargaining that must be discussed with our unions,” said union presidents Sean Howard, Mike Vargo and Colin Provost, who together represent more than 5,000 Department of Correction employees including correction officers. “The best way to achieve a common end – safe employees, safe prisons – is when workers have a voice and seat at the table in decisions impacting their working conditions. In the meantime, we continue to encourage our members to get vaccinated and wear their masks.”
Asked whether a plan to mandate vaccinations for DOC employees was in the works, a spokesperson for Lamont said Monday, “We don’t have any update on this.”
Lamont is on vacation for the week, leaving Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, the acting governor and making it unlikely that any talks will take place in the near term. Lamont’s office announced late last week that nursing home workers and others who deal with vulnerable populations will be required to be vaccinated. DOC employees were not on the list of employees subject to the requirement.
At .1%, inmates in the DOC have a fraction of the positivity rate for COVID-19 infections found in the state population.
According to data provided by the DOC, 46% of agency employees received at least one COVID-19 vaccination through clinics offered by Griffin Hospital earlier this year. As of Friday, 2,673 employees have been vaccinated through the clinics, officials said. The agency has no estimate of the number of employees who sought inoculation at outside venues or through their health care providers since they are not required to report their vaccination status.
Twice as many DOC employees have COVID-19 than inmates, according to the agency. Eight inmates are being treated in the infirmary at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution and one is asymptomatic as of Aug. 6, according to the DOC website. At the same time, the website said 20 employees have tested positive for COVID-19.
As of Friday, 4,843 inmates have received at least one shot, according to the DOC. It’s difficult to calculate what percentage of inmates has been vaccinated because people enter and leave the system on a daily basis, said Karen Martucci, spokeswoman for the agency.
“It’s a moving target,” she said. In the past few weeks the percentage of inmates who are agreeing to the shots has ticked up slightly, she said. Earlier this year when the agency started providing the vaccine to inmates ahead of most of the public, 70% agreed to get the shots. More recently the compliance rate has been 48%, she said.
“The number of inmates being vaccinated varies day to day,” Martucci said. “Inmates have numerous opportunities to be vaccinated starting with the day they enter the system.”
The agency has continued an in-person education drive, making inmates aware of the benefits of vaccination, she said. “For example, 128 inmates over the last four days who had previously refused the vaccine, have now accepted,” Martucci said. “This change occurred after another round of focused and interactive education.”
Lamont said last week that he’s considering vaccine mandates for those who have jobs that deal with populations with special needs or inmates since both groups had “relatively low” vaccination rates of about 40%, according to the Associated Press.
COVID-19 infections began to escalate in the state and throughout the nation as the more contagious Delta variant became more prevalent.
The state had a positivity rate of 3.33% on Monday – a sizable increase since early July when the positivity rate was closer to .6%.
Martucci said any plans for mandatory vaccinations for DOC employees would have to come from the state and not the agency. Since vaccinations are not mandatory at this point, DOC employees are not required to reveal their vaccination status. Since the start of the pandemic, 1,716 employees and 4,596 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 with 19 inmates dying from complications of the disease.
The DOC has continued to test workers on a weekly basis, whether or not they have received the shots. Employees are also tested if they are identified during contact tracing, Martucci said. Inmates are tested biweekly, before and after a 14-day quarantine when they enter the system, if they are transferred to a different facility, attend an outside medical appointment, are identified during contact tracing or if they are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, Martucci said.
Education continues to be the key among the inmates, Martucci said, from posters and videos to face-to-face town hall-style meetings, all aimed at showing the benefits of vaccination.
Masks continue to be mandated throughout the system even though mask mandates for the public were relaxed a few months ago, she said. “We have to go above and beyond because we are in a different type of setting than the community,” Martucci said.