Coronavirus vaccine
SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in a box. (M-Foto via shutterstock)

Three weeks ago, one inmate with COVID-19 was being treated in the infirmary at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. Friday there were 49; just four days later, 68 inmates were there as the delta variant creates a new wave of cases that has simultaneously increased fourfold among Department of Correction staff, according to agency figures. 

The highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus is creating an uptick in cases that was not unexpected, according to Karen Martucci, spokesperson for the DOC. “Our positivity rate went from .3 % to .8% in one week,” Martucci said. But the agency is hoping its “heavy“ testing schedules of inmates and staff and other precautions will temper the rise in cases, Martucci added.

What has not increased as yet is the uptake in vaccination among inmates and employees: The DOC has administered COVID-19 vaccines to about two dozen individuals in that same time period. 

Of the 68 inmates in the infirmary, 51 had declined to be vaccinated, 10 are fully vaccinated, four are partially vaccinated, and there was no information on three, Martucci said. “The numbers are pretty telling,” Martucci said.

The DOC hopes a different approach will alter inmates’ views toward vaccination. There are inmates who work as certified nurse assistants in the system, Martucci said, and providing peer-to-peer sessions may encourage more inmates to get vaccinated. “You have to look at who are your messengers,” she said. “Doctors are one thing, but peers are another. We’re looking at the CNAs to see if they are good messengers and if we can bring them in to talk to the population.”

Meanwhile, as of Aug. 27, 78 members of DOC staff were recovering from COVID-19. 

Union officials are stressing that the agency needs to maintain mitigation strategies as the number of staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 has increased in recent weeks.

“We are definitely concerned about the recent increase in COVID-19 cases among staff,” the presidents of three unions said in a joint statement Monday. Sean Howard, president of AFSCME Local 387, Michael Vargo, president of Local 1565 and Collin Provost, president of Local 391 said, “From the start of the pandemic, our unions have made safety within our prisons a priority, whether it’s getting proper PPE, better controlling offender movement, or speeding up the availability of vaccinations for those who want them while making sure on-site testing is available for those who do not want them. We urge the agency and the Lamont administration to work with us to address safety and security in state prisons because it’s clear this virus is not going away anytime soon.” 

Since the start of the pandemic, about 1,800 employees and 4,674 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19; 19 inmates died from complications of the disease.

After suing Lamont and the agency over the handling of the pandemic, the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut is continuing to monitor the incidence of COVID-19 in the prisons, said Claudine Fox, the organization’s Director of Public Policy and Advocacy.

Court-ordered mandates for how the DOC should deal with COVID-19 expired on Dec. 31 when the settlement agreement for the lawsuit ended. But the agency should be continuing to stress compassionate release for those who are seriously ill and more releases of those close to the end of their sentence to keep people safe, Fox said. “This is all on the DOC to do the right thing and protect people,” she said.

The CT ACLU has no problem with the state Department of Public Health keeping track of the vaccination status of inmates, Fox said. “As long as that information is being wielded for the good to make sure vaccines are being distributed in an equitable way, we have no problem with it,” Fox said.

But the organization doesn’t want the information to be used to coerce or punish people who have not been vaccinated, she said.

As of Aug. 27, 4,861 inmates and 2,697 employees had been vaccinated by the agency. There are about 6,000 DOC employees, but the agency does not know how many may have been vaccinated outside of work. 

But an executive order issued this month requiring all state employees to be vaccinated will likely allow the DOC to gather a more accurate picture of how many workers have been vaccinated, Martucci said. The executive order requires state employees to receive at least one vaccination by Sept. 27. 

The DOC will be working with the unions representing employees and Lamont’s administration to draft a policy regarding the shots, Martucci said. “Once we have the policy, we will hit the ground running,” she said.