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Most Hawaii inmates refusing to get COVID-19 vaccination

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Lt. Gov. Josh Green attributed the latest COVID outbreak among Hawaii’s inmate population to prisoners’ ongoing reluctance to get vaccinated, while warning that unvaccinated correctional officers, as well as health care workers, should be prohibited from working on the front lines.

Some 71 inmates and one staff member at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo have tested positive for COVID in recent days even though the state prioritized vaccinating inmates when the vaccine rollout began in December.

The state Department of Public Safety told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser earlier this month that it doesn’t track vaccination rates among inmates or staff, but on Monday Green told Spotlight Hawaii that only 25% to 50% of inmates are vaccinated.

“We have gone to the prisons multiple times, all of the prisons multiple times, to humbly ask the inmates and of course the staff to be vaccinated,” said Green. “I’ll be straight with you: Some of our public safety folks have been reluctant to get vaccinated, and that is not something I’m proud of. I think everyone who works front- facing others, especially those who are vulnerable, must get vaccinated. That means health care workers, public safety workers, prison guards and so on.”

Green said it’s been particularly challenging to convince large numbers of inmates to get vaccinated.

“Can I be candid with you? These are not rule followers,” Green said, adding that many inmates are distrustful of authority.

Hawaii’s overcrowded and poorly ventilated jails and prisons have been among the most dangerous places to be during the pandemic, with the coronavirus spreading rapidly in six out of the state’s nine facilities. In addition to the current outbreak in the Big Island jail, there have been major outbreaks at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, Maui Community Correctional Center, Halawa Correctional Facility, Waiawa Correctional Facility and Saguaro Correctional Center, which holds Hawaii prisoners in Arizona.

Hawaii’s jails are so overcrowded that public safety officials have said that social distancing is virtually impossible, compounding the risks. The Hilo jail, for example, was designed to hold 206 inmates but held 338 as of May 17.

Earlier this month half of the state’s 40 new recruits to serve as correctional officers at Hawaii’s jails and prisons tested positive for the coronavirus amid training after the vast majority of the class declined to get vaccinated.

A total of 2,035 inmates and 251 staff have tested positive for COVID since the start of the pandemic. At least nine inmates have died.

Green says he doesn’t believe in mandating vaccines, but that shouldn’t stop restrictions on the type of work unvaccinated employees are performing. He said unvaccinated health care workers and correctional officers should be given administrative jobs until they get vaccinated or there is widespread immunity against the coronavirus.

“You are morally obligated if you are going to be front-facing patients in the hospital or individuals who are incarcerated or imprisoned if you are the prison guards, you are morally obligated to keep them safe,” said Green.

As of Friday, slightly more than half of Hawaii residents were fully vaccinated against COVID. While the vaccine is readily available to anyone 12 and older, in rare cases medical conditions preclude someone from getting the vaccine. Children not old enough to be vaccinated are also still at risk of getting sick from the virus and suffering long-term complications. The virus has killed more than 300 children nationally. Last month a boy under the age of 11 died after traveling to Hawaii with his parents, who were both vaccinated and tested negative for the virus before their trip.

A variant of the virus, which has been detected in Hawaii, has also been killing an alarming number of children in Brazil, raising concerns among doctors and scientists as the variant spreads.

Green said it isn’t fair for front-line workers to put others at risk.

“They are counting on us to protect them, so we can’t be the ones who spread the virus to them,” he said.

Media contacts for the Public Safety Department and major hospitals couldn’t be reached on Memorial Day. It’s not clear whether they have enacted restrictions on unvaccinated workers.

State Department of Health officials reported 30 new confirmed and probable coronavirus infections Monday, bringing the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 36,276 cases.

No new virus-related fatalities were reported, and the statewide COVID-19 death toll remained 500.

Hawaii’s virus-related death toll hit 500 Sunday when state officials counted the death of an Oahu woman in her 50s. Despite the milestone, Hawaii’s virus fatality rate remains the lowest in the nation at roughly 35 deaths per 100,000 residents.

Monday’s new confirmed and probable infection count by island included 20 new cases on Oahu, six on Maui, one on Kauai and three Hawaii residents diagnosed outside the state.

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