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Editorial: Investigate COVID outbreak at prison

With Hawaii now receiving its first deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines, there’s no argument about forming the immunization line behind health-care workers with direct exposure to coronavirus patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities. But a potentially controversial question is how to prioritize subsequent groups.

Following the shot distribution’s first phase, which also includes residents with underlying health conditions and some first responders, among those in the second stage: personnel in prisons, jails and detention centers as well as inmates, according to current state plans.

Given general attitudes toward the incarcerated, putting them toward the head of the line could prompt some balking, but there are compelling reasons for doing so. High on that list is physical distancing difficulties, starkly revealed by the current COVID prison surge.

On Monday, in the most recent infection cluster here, Halawa Correctional Facility (HCF) accounted for 85 of the 158 new cases reported for Oahu. On Tuesday, HCF reported five more active positive staff cases and one more positive inmate, bringing the staff count to 33 and the inmate total to 168.

In response to the outbreak, the state has rightly implemented a lockdown and suspended inmate movement within the facility and transfers, for at least 14 days. Also, its security and medical staff are said to be working to keep the virus from spreading.

The increases, though, should spur a thorough investigation of health protocols at Halawa, as well as overall prison and jail strategies for improving ability to comply with the challenging 6-foot-distancing directive.

The fledgling Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission should not hesitate to take a close look at conditions, and report findings to the public. The oversight watchdog, created this year to monitor and push for improvement in our corrections system, has the authority to conduct independent investigations and make unannounced inspections in facilities.

State lawmakers, too, hold potential to spur improvements. In mid-August, Gov. David Ige frowned on state senators who he said staged an “unexpected intrusion” to tour state contact-tracing operations. But the short-notice visit did result in more focused attention on the work, and prodded much-needed changes.

While Hawaii ranks among states with relatively low total COVID-19 case counts, it’s worrisome that we round out the top dozen when sorted by per-10,000-prisoners, according to The Marshall Project, a journalism nonprofit that focuses on criminal justice issues.

Nationwide, there have been about 250,000 COVID-19 prisoner cases, and upwards of 62,000 cases among prison staff, with about two-thirds of patients now recovered in both groups, according to the project. Such data evidence the relatively easy transmission, due to proximity and interactions, between inmates and staffers, the latter of whom live among the wider community.

Since corrections facilities are built to efficiently house as many people as possible, their boxed-in living conditions can pose risks equal to or greater than conditions in long-term care facilities.

With COVID cases in corrections facilities rising across the country, the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice this week sensibly recommended that guards and inmates should be among the first to receive vaccination — behind only highly vulnerable populations. Hawaii should follow through on its plans to inoculate these groups early on.

Meanwhile, Mayor Kirk Caldwell is asking Ige’s permission to amend an emergency order, thereby allowing the city to omit inmates from its daily new case counts, given that outbreak figures could hamper Oahu’s ability to advance in its tiered economic recovery framework. Should approval come, however, the city must have a plan ready to reverse course if inmate cases turn severe enough to strain health-care resources and availability of hospital beds.

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