Even as we make progress vaccinating the population against COVID-19, the threat of the virus remains real - especially in prisons.
New cases have crested yet again in Pennsylvania and a more contagious variant of the virus has become commonplace. Last week, Cambria County Prison reported a third outbreak of the coronavirus that infected 55 incarcerated people and 10 employees. “You get one case and it just takes off,” Cambria County’s warden said about the jail’s latest wave of infections.
Meanwhile, the pause on giving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has delayed urgently needed prison vaccinations.
County jails postpone vaccination efforts
Prisons have been particularly affected by the J&J pause. Its one-shot formulation has made it an especially appealing option for county jails, where incarcerated people cycle in and out more frequently. In addition to Pennsylvania state prisons, jails in Allegheny, Delaware, and Washington counties had to postpone their plans to vaccinate staff and incarcerated people with the J&J vaccine. Washington County Jail said it would begin offering the Pfizer vaccine this week instead, but the other two counties planned to wait for approval to use the J&J shot again. That could come as early as this Friday, when a CDC advisory committee will meet to decide whether to end the pause.
DOC Covid-19 dashboard back online
The Department of Corrections has launched a revamped data dashboard for state prisons after taking it offline for two and a half months to correct faulty data. While that’s a month and a half later than expected, the new dashboard offers greater transparency around infections and vaccinations in DOC prisons. It shows for the first time the number of incarcerated people and staff who have been vaccinated against Covid-19, while making it easier to see historical data on infections and how cases are trending over time.
We note that while infection levels are currently low system-wide, the number of active infections among staff is nearly two times the number of incarcerated people testing positive. It could be a sign that vaccinations are beginning to work to reduce infections in prison. In the 17 days since the DOC made vaccinations available in every one of its facilities, the share of incarcerated people who have been inoculated has risen to more than 52 percent, while the rate among corrections staff lags far behind at about 20 percent.
The Prison Society calls on all Pennsylvania prisons and jails to keep up efforts to offer vaccinations to all people in custody and staff, despite the temporary setback caused by the J&J pause. We applaud Washington County’s efforts to quickly pivot to offering another approved vaccine.
In addition, we continue to urge all state and county officials to: