A sign says out of COVID-19 tests at the Hartford Public Library.
The sign at the door to the Hartford Public Library on Main Street reads “out of COVID-19 tests” around 3 p.m. on Thursday. A security officer inside said the location ran out of the test kits around 2 p.m. Credit: Doug Hardy / CTNewsJunkie

With community spread on the rise, 735 Correction Department employees are listed as out after testing positive for COVID-19 since late last week, according to the agency.

At this point, more corrections staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days than inmates during the same period, the numbers show. As of Thursday, there were 181 symptomatic inmates, all of which are in the medical unit at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, and another 320 are positive but asymptomatic while isolating at several of the state’s prisons.

The number of staff who are out may be lower than the 735 listed because the employees may not have been logged into the system when they returned to work this weekend, said Ashley McCarthy, spokeswoman for the agency.

“With the growing cases of COVID-19, the Department of Correction remains attentive to the impact on our staff and those in our custody,” said McCarthy who pointed out that the agency’s positivity rate is “well below that of the community.”

The number of DOC employees out due to COVID-19 isn’t a surprise when considering that the state’s positivity rate hit 21.5% – the highest on record – state officials said

The state Department of Administrative Services did not have access to the number of state employees who were out due to a positive COVID-19 test Monday. The state police haven’t had a problem, said Brian Foley, executive assistant to state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella.

“The number of troopers out of work fluctuates daily,” Foley said. “At this point, only a small percentage of troopers are out of work. The daily operations of the Connecticut State Police and the public safety of the state of Connecticut have not been affected.”

DESPP, which encompasses the state police, had a vaccination rate of about 83% as of Nov. 22, state officials said.

The DOC has the lowest vaccination rate among state employees at about 65%, according to state figures. At the end of November, the agency also had the highest percentage of employees – 12% – who were not compliant with weekly testing or vaccinations as required by Gov. Ned Lamont.

The DOC also tallied the highest amount of overtime in 2021 – $93 million – compared to all other state agencies including DESPP and the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services which both came in at $44 to $55 million, according to the state Comptroller’s Open PayRoll website.

Only one employee has been placed on leave due to non-compliance with Lamont’s order, McCarthy said.

The agency continues to ensure access to vaccinations and boosters and is cleaning continuously while enforcing masking and weekly testing, she said.

The DOC is also in the process of rolling out the protocol recently issued by the state based on new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that require employees to only remain out of work for five days after testing positive if symptoms have subsided.

The high positivity rate has driven up the demand for testing, according to a memo sent to state employees Jan. 1 outlining new guidelines on how to proceed if they come down with symptoms, have a close contact with someone who tested positive or test positive themselves.

Employees were instructed to send photos of their home tests, whether they test positive and must stay out of work or if they are complying with Lamont’s directive that all state employees must be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

The memo indicated that state employees who are not vaccinated but working 100% of the time from home and are not showing up at a state office can forgo weekly testing for the time being. A recent arbitration sided with the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition in allowing state employees who seek to work remotely to file an appeal if they get turned down in their request to work 80% or less from home. There are no figures available on how many state employees were working from home as of Monday.

Those who test positive, regardless of their vaccination status, must stay out of work five days and then can return to work while masked if they have no fever and their symptoms are starting to resolve, the memo said.

Those who are not fully vaccinated and have close contact with someone who has tested positive must stay out of work five days, the memo said. Those employees who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster can remain at work if they have had a close contact with someone who tested positive, state officials said.

Anyone who develops symptoms should not report to work and state officials encouraged employees to be tested on day five before returning to work, the memo said.

The DOC was proactive in hiring more correctional officers which is minimizing the impact of employees who are out with COVID, McCarthy said. But the agency has still had to modify some aspects of operations to keep resources focused on “maintaining safety and security,” McCarthy said.