The omicron surge has accelerated the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails to the highest levels since last spring, with thousands of incarcerated people yet again getting sick and more dying.
These perilous times call for prisons to improve efforts to protect residents and staff.
Since the world received news of the new variant after Thanksgiving, at least 11 people in custody in Pennsylvania prisons and jails have died from COVID-19. That’s almost three times as many as the four preceding months combined. At least 17 country jails have also been hit with large new outbreaks that often infect dozens of incarcerated people. New infections in state prisons have spiked to levels not seen since last March, with combined cases among incarcerated people and staff currently exceeding 1,000.
"We need to do something new,” says Joe Amon, clinical professor of community health and prevention at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. “We need to be addressing this seriously."
Unequal access to COVID-19 boosters in Pennsylvania's prisons and jails
Vaccinations continue to be one of the most important weapons against the disease, and the increased infectiousness of the omicron variant has made booster doses even more necessary. Amon says prisons should strive to follow the CDC’s recommendations favoring the use of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine for boosters, which have been shown to provide more protection than the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Information about booster shots in prison is hard to come by because so few correctional facilities proactively share vaccinations data with the public. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which does not include booster doses in its online data dashboard, reported to the Prison Society this week that two-thirds of fully vaccinated people incarcerated in state prisons have received a booster shot. It is using the Moderna vaccine for boosters.
We have seen only a handful of reports about boosters in Pennsylvania county jails, which have by and large failed to be transparent about the impact of COVID-19. When an outbreak infected 33 incarcerated people in Northampton County Prison this week, officials reported that 78 out of the 635 people in custody have received a booster. Less than half of the population was fully vaccinated and therefore eligible for a booster. We commend Northampton County for reporting thorough information about its mitigation work in the wake of this outbreak.
But the data from Northampton County is also consistent with the trend of low vaccination rates that has persisted in jails, where the high turnover of incarcerated people poses a particular challenge.
State prisons are also still struggling to inoculate correctional staff; nearly half remain unvaccinated. Amon says prisons need to be doing more to bring these rates higher, including providing more information about vaccines and boosters and incentives for getting the shots. The DOC’s $25 cash incentive has helped achieve a nearly 90% vaccination rate among people incarcerated in state prisons. Uptake of the vaccine among corrections officers has gradually inched up since the state mandated that they get inoculated or be tested weekly and offered a day of paid time off as an added incentive. Individual facilities have also offered staff additional incentives.
The omicron surge has led public health experts to encourage the use of higher-quality masks for protection from the virus. Prisons should also provide more protective masks in the face of omicron, Amon says, ideally N95 respirators or the equivalent KN95s. The Illinois Department of Corrections already provides new KN95 masks to people in custody on a weekly basis, showing that this is possible even in a large prison system. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, however, still only offers cloth masks manufactured by incarcerated people. Cloth masks are “significantly less able to protect people wearing them from exposure,” Amon says.
The Prison Society calls on all state and county officials to: