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Half of Hawaii’s jail and prison guard recruits test positive for COVID

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Half of the state’s new recruits to serve as correctional officers at Hawaii’s jails and prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus after the vast majority of the class declined to get vaccinated.

The recruits were close to finishing a 10-week training program in Honolulu that includes 360 hours of classroom time and physical training exercises when the outbreak occurred. A graduation planned for last week was postponed.

Twenty out of the 40 recruits — one of whom was hospitalized — have tested positive for the virus, according to Toni Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety.

Thirty-six of the 40 recruits opted not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The four trainees who received the vaccine tested negative for the coronavirus, as did the staff conducting the training, who were also vaccinated, according to the Public Safety Department.

Schwartz said the department is looking into the legality of mandating that recruits be vaccinated and that the department has made sure vaccines are readily available to all employees through community clinics and mobile sites.

The department “strongly encouraged the recruit class to get vaccinated, if they didn’t already voluntarily get the shot, and offered them class time to go get it after training started,” Schwartz said in response to emailed questions.

The four vaccinated recruits have been cleared by the Health Department to resume training, while the other 36 recruits remain in quarantine. Upon being cleared, they will be able to finish up the last four days of training, said Schwartz.

Throughout the country, high rates of correctional officers have refused to get the coronavirus vaccination. Guards, whose jobs put them at elevated risk for the virus, have declined it out of fear of side effects, because they’ve embraced conspiracy theories about the vaccine or are distrustful of prison administrators and their handling of the pandemic, The Marshall Project reported in March.

It’s not clear how many of the current correctional officers in Hawaii have been vaccinated. Employees aren’t required to report their vaccination status, and neither the Department of Public Safety nor Department of Health has been tracking it.

There have been 217 reported cases of correctional officers contracting the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to Public Safety Department figures. Close to 2,000 Hawaii inmates, including 656 who are housed at Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, have tested positive for the virus. At least nine Hawaii inmates have died.

Public safety officials say they are doing what they can to encourage vaccinations.

“Vaccinations are a critical part of the Department of Public Safety’s efforts to mitigate spread of the virus among our employees as well as the inmate population,” said Schwartz. “PSD continually puts out information to staff on vaccination opportunities and encourages all employees and inmates to voluntarily receive the COVID vaccination.”

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