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OCCC is fighting outbreak of more than 100 infections

More than 100 inmates and an employee at the Oahu Community Correctional Center have tested positive for COVID-19, a cluster of infections that the state Department of Public Safety is working quickly to contain before it spreads into the community.

There are 155 active inmate cases at OCCC and 18 staff members out with the virus, according to the latest figures from DPS. A mass testing effort recently underway at OCCC revealed 110 positive cases out of 522 tests Monday. Forty-seven of those inmates are reported as recovered, according to the release. One employee at OCCC also tested positive. Testing is ongoing, and the facility implemented its pandemic protocols to limit inmate movement, officials said. There were 915 inmates at OCCC on Monday.

The PSD Health Care Division developed a comprehensive pandemic response plan for the facilities, based upon current guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and approved by the Office of Correctional Health of the American Correctional Association, according to Toni Schwartz, DPS’ public information officer, in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

“The protocol to medically isolate, quarantine and cohort inmates is extensive,” said Schwartz.

PSD offers COVID-19 vaccines to all jail and prison inmates and encourages all employees to get inoculated. Despite the state mandate and access to vaccines, DPS currently has the lowest participation rate of any state department, with 77% of the 2,285 employees vaccinated. Incarcerated individuals are not participating at the rate needed to maintain safe environments.

State officials believe the vaccination rate is closer to 83% when workers on extended leave are excluded. DPS did not provide a breakdown of vaccinated and unvaccinated workers assigned to Hawaii’s correctional facilities.

A point-in-time study done June 21 by PSD’s Health Care Division revealed that only 41% of the OCCC inmate population was vaccinated, compared with 23% at Hawaii Community Correctional Center, 47% at Maui Community Correctional Center and 58% at Kauai Community Correctional Center. Officials cautioned that the statistics are merely a snapshot of one day.

“The inmate population is transient and changes by the hour as courts order intakes and releases throughout the day,” said Schwartz.

Also Monday, DPS officials said a deputy sheriff assigned to the Sheriff Special Operation Section tested positive. The state Department of Health was notified of the positive cases.

The cluster of infections comes as the state is facing another petition before the Supreme Court of the State of Hawaii from Public Defender James S. Tabe, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union in Hawaii, for the early release of certain classifications of inmates to help alleviate the overcrowded conditions that have plagued some Hawaii correctional facilities for years and create the perfect conditions for the delta variant to spread quickly.

The state’s attorneys argue that releasing inmates amid a surge of infections that is testing the limits of health care workers and hospitals is irresponsible and not in the interest of the public’s health, safety and welfare. Unless inmates are vaccinated, have a place to live and are evaluated for the risk they pose to the community while being closely monitored, they cannot be put back in public during a public health crisis, according to a response filed by filed by state Attorney General Clare E. Connors.

In February 2020 DPS began planning for the pandemic before the first infection was identified in a correctional facility, according to Connors’ response. The plan has been updated eight times as the pandemic evolves.

The federal settlement DPS entered into Sept. 2 covers the same class of inmates the Public Defender’s Office seeks to represent in its current petition, according to the state’s response.

The Public Defender’s Office said the categories of incarcerated persons and “safeguards proposed in the relief sought in the Petition meet this important criterion. These safeguards include excluding persons convicted of or arrested for the most serious offenses from presumptive release and giving the lower courts the discretion to exclude from presumptive release those individuals who would pose a significant risk,” wrote Deputy Public Defender Jon N. Ikenaga in a response to the attorney general filed Sept. 9.

“The public-fear-inducing claims that releases will lead to a crime wave which will jeopardize public safety have been debunked by a report prepared by the non-profit firm Lawyers for Equal Justice. LEJ’s report, which was based on an extensive review of court filings, court minutes, pleadings filed in individual cases, Honolulu Police Department statistics and media reports, concluded that ‘government officials and the media misinformed the public,’” wrote Ikenaga. “The LEJ report noted that HPD had identified 300 individuals who had been released on Oahu due to COVID-19. While HPD claimed that 50 of these individuals had re-offended, the LEJ’s research revealed that only 39 of the 50 individuals had been released pursuant to the Supreme Court’s order. Further, 80 percent of the 39 were re-arrested for houselessness-related offenses or violations of the terms of release. The LEJ report confirms that the public safety concerns and objections raised by Respondents as to released persons re- offending en masse are exaggerated and not supported by empirical data and should not deter this Court from granting the relief sought in the Petition.”

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