February 3, 2022

Omicron surges in prisons amid unequal access to vaccines and N95s
The Omicron variant’s toll on Pennsylvania prisons is growing worse even as new infections drop on the outside, showing that incarcerated people remain highly vulnerable to COVID-19.

The Omicron variant’s toll on Pennsylvania prisons is growing worse even as new infections drop on the outside, showing that incarcerated people remain highly vulnerable to COVID-19. Three weeks ago, we called on state prisons and county jails to do more to counter this threat, including redoubling efforts to give booster shots and providing more protective masks. The state of COVID behind bars shows how badly new measures are still needed in correctional facilities.

“Unequal access to vaccines and highly-protective masks continues to put the lives of incarcerated people in unnecessary danger,” says Claire Shubik-Richards, our executive director.

Infections in state prisons more than double and 7 more die

In the last three weeks, COVID infections among people in state prison custody have more than doubled to nearly 1,200. The illness has also killed 7 more incarcerated people, who are dying from the disease at the fastest rate since last winter’s deadly surge. From December 2020 through January 2021, COVID killed 71 people confined to Pennsylvania prisons and jails. So far during this winter’s Omicron surge, 21 have died from COVID, even though we now have widely available vaccines that protect against serious illness.

Unfortunately, many people in custody remain unvaccinated, especially in county jails. In the last month, 25 county jails in Pennsylvania have had new outbreaks. Westmoreland County Prison saw 39% of its jail population become infected in the month of January. The county reported that just 30% of incarcerated people were fully vaccinated. York County Prison had 1 in 10 people in custody test positive in its latest outbreak. And the number of active infections in Allegheny County Jail, where only 45% of detainees are fully vaccinated, peaked at 256 last month.

Boosters lacking in jails

Limited access to COVID-19 booster shots in county jails makes matters worse, as the Omicron variant has rendered “fully vaccinated” status far less effective at preventing serious illness. Incarcerated people cannot access boosters in at least 7 county jails, according to a Prison Society survey conducted over the last two weeks. These include the jails in Armstrong, Chester, Jefferson, McKean, Montour, Potter, and Schuylkill counties.

New studies from the CDC have found that a booster dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine increases protection against hospitalization from 57% to 90%. The public health agency now says boosters are necessary to stay “up-to-date” on COVID vaccinations.

Incarcerated people denied N95 and KN95 respirators

The Omicron variant’s unprecedented degree of transmissibility also led the CDC to update its guidance on masks to recommend that the general public wear “the most protective mask you can” and endorsed the use of N95 and KN95 respirators, especially for “high risk situations.” Then, the Biden administration launched an initiative to provide three free N95s to every American at drug stores and community health centers.

But despite their elevated risk from COVID-19, people confined to Pennsylvania prisons and jails still lack access to these highly protective masks. The Department of Corrections told the Prison Society it cannot access the federal government’s free supply on behalf of incarcerated people, and that it would not issue N95s anyway because they contain metal wiring the department deems a security concern. Instead, the DOC continues to issue cloth masks—which the CDC says offer the least protection—to people confined in state prisons.

“Failing to provide N95 or KN95 masks to incarcerated people at this stage of the pandemic denies enhanced protection to people who need it the most,” says Shubik-Richards, the Prison Society’s executive director.

At least three other state prison systems, California, Illinois, and Washington are providing highly protective respirators to people in custody. California last week started providing “one unaltered KN-95 respirator per week" to everyone in state prison. Illinois has provided new KN-95 masks to people in state prisons on a weekly basis since May 2020. We are told by the John Howard Association of Illinois that officials sometimes remove the metal wire inside the KN-95s. The Prison Society asked Shampa Chatterjee, an associate professor of physiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, about whether altering the masks in this way could make them less effective. Chatterjee tried removing the metal from a KN-95 herself and said it was a “complicated” task that she feared could puncture the respirators and allow infected aerosols to leak through when worn.

The Prison Society continues to call on all state and county officials to:

  • Eliminate the medical co-pay for accessing health care while in custody;
  • Expand efforts to safely reduce the number of people in custody;
  • Continue to offer COVID-19 vaccinations and booster doses to all people in custody and staff in prisons and jails;
  • Implement weekly, rapid testing of all staff that come into contact with people in custody until they are vaccinated;    
  • Require that every county publicly report prison testing results and virus-related deaths in custody;
  • Test and quarantine every new person entering custody; and
  • Provide highly-protective N95 or KN95 respirators to people in custody.

If you have questions about COVID-19 in Pennsylvania prisons, visit our COVID-19 landing page or email customerservice@prisonsociety.org.

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