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Hawaii News

COVID-19 vaccine rates up for Hawaii public safety workers and inmates

Nearly 300 corrections workers chose weekly testing instead of the COVID-19 vaccine as state public safety officials saw a surge in employee and inmate inoculations while working to prevent outbreaks in Hawaii’s jails and prisons.

There were 296, or 18.7%, of the 1,579 corrections workers in Hawaii who declined the vaccine, according to the state Department of Public Safety, as did 38 of Hawaii’s 332 sheriffs.

Hundreds of unvaccinated corrections staff is an area of concern as the department contends with a petition by the state Office of the Public Defender to release certain classes of incarcerated people to ease the crowded conditions where viruses thrive. Hawaii’s jails and prisons were designed to house 2,491 people and have been modified to increase their operational capacity to 3,527. On Sept. 6 there were 2,917 people incarcerated in Hawaii, according to DPS’ Corrections Division.

“It is a concern when inmates and staff choose not to be vaccinated,” said Toni Schwartz, DPS’ public information officer, in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “That is why the Department has continued its efforts to educate staff and inmates about the vaccine and encourage all staff to get vaccinated, if not for themselves, for their loved ones, co-workers and individuals under their supervision and care. We’ve seen a substantial increase in both staff and inmate vaccinations that we believe is a result of these efforts. We’ve seen a substantial increase in both staff and inmate vaccinations that we believe is a result of these efforts.”

In addition to the increase in staff inoculations, vaccination rates of Hawaii’s incarcerated population rose at eight of the nine correctional facilities since June, according to a Sept. 14 point-in-time count presented to the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission on Thursday.

Ninety-two percent of the population of the Halawa Correctional Facility was vaccinated Sept. 14, a 21% increase from the last time count June 21. Forty-nine percent of Oahu Community Correctional Center inmates were vaccinated, up 8% from the previous count.

Prisons and jails across the country have struggled to keep COVID-19 from spreading through chunks of their population. According to a report released Sept. 1 by the Prison Policy Initiative titled “States of emergency: The failure of prison system responses to COVID-19,” Hawaii and 43 other states received an “F” for their response to COVID-19 behind bars, five states received a “D” or “D-” and California earned the highest mark with a “C-.”

Nationwide, COVID-19 has claimed more than 2,700 incarcerated lives and infected 1 out of every 3 people in prison, according to the report. As of Monday more than 2,600 inmates have been infected in Hawaii’s penal institutions, with nine fatalities; seven at the Halawa Correctional Facility; and two at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz.

The 76% vaccination rate of Hawaii’s corrections staff is significantly higher than many of their mainland counterparts. Nearly half of Kentucky corrections workers are not vaccinated, Nevada has no plan to inoculate prison and jail workers, and in Pennsylvania corrections staff are suing to avoid a mandate imposed by the governor.

As of Sept. 15, 84.5% were fully vaccinated, according to their attestation forms, an increase of more than 7% from a month ago. That percentage excludes employees who are out on various types of leave and not able to report their status. State officials expect the percentage of vaccinated DPS workers to rise further when those employees return.

Based on employee responses, about 76% of Corrections Division workers are fully vaccinated, a little less than 5% are partially vaccinated and 18.7% chose to test weekly. More than 85% of sheriffs are fully vaccinated, about 2% are partially vaccinated and 11% decided to test. Eighty-seven percent of the 155 administration division employees are completely vaccinated.

DPS Director Max N. Otani and his leadership team are vaccinated, and opportunities for employees and their families to get vaccinated are consistently shared along with the latest information and guidance from DPS’ health care division, the state Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Ultimately, people have the right to choose for their individual health care needs,” said Schwartz. “We can’t speculate on why people make the choices they make but it is possible that PSD’s efforts combined with news of the high rate of community spread, and the Governor’s mandate contributed to their decision.”

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