Andrew Harmon, interim director of pharmacy at UCHealth Northern Colorado, holds up three of four vials containing the first rounds of the Covid-19 vaccines at UC Health Poudre Valley Hospital on Dec. 14, 2020, in Fort Collins. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, Pool)
COVID-19 vaccination rates remain low in Colorado’s state prisons as the delta variant drives a spike in cases across the state, largely among unvaccinated people.
From July 26 through Aug. 1, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recorded an average of 798 new cases of COVID-19 per day, the highest seven-day average since mid-May, according to state data.
“Overall in Colorado, in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen about a 30% week-over-week increase,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s top infectious-disease expert, during a media briefing on Monday. “So we certainly are seeing a pretty rapid increase in cases in the state at this point.”
Throughout the pandemic, correctional facilities have been a hotspot for COVID-19 outbreaks, with seven of the 10 largest outbreaks occurring within state prisons or jails. A total of 8,992 incarcerated people and 1,991 staff members have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began and 29 inmates have died, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 dashboard.
There are currently no active outbreaks within Colorado prisons and only three active cases among staff members. But concern is growing regarding correctional facilities’ low vaccination rates amidst the backdrop of rising cases among unvaccinated populations throughout the state.
As of Aug. 2, only 57% of the 5,967 Colorado Department of Corrections staff are fully vaccinated. For incarcerated people, the rate is slightly higher at 64%. There are currently 14,126 people incarcerated in Colorado’s 21 private and state prisons.
“Keep in mind that number is constantly fluctuating, as we get new inmates in from the county jail,” Annie Skinner, a spokesperson for DOC, said in an email. “We have also vaccinated other inmates over the course of this pandemic that have now been released, are on parole, or have moved to community corrections.”
Prison staff have been eligible for the vaccine since January
Correctional officers and prison health care workers have been eligible for the vaccine since January, alongside first responders and health care workers with less direct contact with COVID-19 patients.
On July 30, Gov. Jared Polis announced that Colorado state employees — which includes prison staff — must be vaccinated by September 20 or be subject to twice-weekly COVID-19 testing.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock went a step further on Aug. 2 by mandating that all city employees, teachers, health care workers, homeless shelter and jail/prison staff be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30. Two state prisons are located in Denver, the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center and the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.
David Maxted, a Denver civil-rights and defense attorney, said the low vaccination rate among prison staff is “extremely alarming.”
He wants to see the state implement a mandatory vaccination policy for prison staff who move freely in and out of correctional facilities that have become, at times, the epicenter of Colorado’s COVID-19 outbreaks. Nationwide, the mortality rate for COVID-19 among prisoners is 45% higher than the overall rate, according to the Associated Press.
“I think it just comes with the territory. If you’re a public servant in that role, you have obligations to the safety of people around you,” he said. “People have shown they’re not willing to do it voluntarily, so I think that the governor and director of the Department of Corrections should make it a mandatory policy.”
Any DOC staff member or incarcerated person who is not vaccinated is required to wear a mask within the prison setting, according to Skinner. “All unvaccinated staff who work in a prison facility are required to do a rapid test every day when they enter the facility,” she added in an email. “All unvaccinated staff at any facility or office are currently being tested with a PCR test once a week.”
Department of Corrections spent nearly $2 million on vaccine incentive program for staff
In response to low vaccination rates, the DOC ran a vaccine incentive program in April and May that gave staff members a $500 bonus to get the vaccine. During the two months, the department spent nearly $2 million to incentivize 3,953 employees to get vaccinated.
Maxted is not optimistic that the vaccines will become mandatory for prison staff given what he sees as the state’s lack of regard for people incarcerated during the pandemic.
“But it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “So hopefully they will.”
Maxted and the ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit in Dec. 2020 alleging that Polis had not done enough to protect vulnerable inmates from the coronavirus and that the administration’s inaction resulted in “cruel and unusual” punishment.
The case was first dismissed by a Denver District Court Judge, then overruled by the Colorado Supreme Court. If the Polis administration does not appeal the ruling in the coming weeks, the case will go back to the lower court and be tried again. Maxted was happy to see the ruling overturned by Colorado’s highest court, but feels that in some ways it’s too little, too late.
“The harm has been done and unnecessary lives were lost,” he said. “So it’s kind of a pyrrhic victory.”
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