NC’s use of positivity rates for COVID-19 restrictions ineffective, state prison medical director says

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The North Carolina Department of Public Safety said it expected to use its full allocation of COVID-19 doses by the end of the week. It expects 400 fewer doses to be delivered next week.

As of Friday, the department reported nearly 4,000 prison staffers had been vaccinated while just over 1,500 inmates were vaccinated. While the agency said it wanted to quickly vaccinate staff to reduce transmission from staff to the public, officials said they didn’t have the data to support this idea.

In a media briefing, North Carolina prison officials also said they did not expect a racial disparity in inmates who chose to get a vaccine even as those disparities are already evident in the general population.

Current COVID-19 spread

Currently, 2.2 percent of the state’s prison population has COVID-19. It’s an increase from two weeks ago when the rate was 1.4 percent. However, the state’s prison medical director, Dr. Arthur Campbell, said those numbers are expected to change.

“You expect fluctuations depending on where you were testing, how many you’re testing, and what the circumstances are,” said Campbell.

The department of public safety’s dashboard showed testing has significantly decreased in the last month.

When CBS 17 asked what percentage would trigger concern, Campbell said the severity of the illness in people and how many people are dying from the illness are more important than how many cases there are.

“To be honest with the states, for instance, that are trying to set an arbitrary rate and use them as a trigger to try determine when they think they can relax restrictions and those kinds of things, has really not been effective. A better gauge of concern is really looking at, again what I tell folks is more important is, what is the morbidity and mortality associated with the cases that you are having,” said Campbell.

That opinion contradicts the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Service’s approach.

The state is monitoring four key data trends in its reopening process — the number of COVID-19 cases, the percent of tests that come back positive, the occupancy rates of hospitals and the number of people who visit emergency departments with flu-like symptoms.

DPS’ definition of percent positive on its dashboard also differs from the state’s definition according to Campbell. The state’s definition for percent positive is the number of tests that come back with a positive COVID-19 result. Campbell said DPS’ definition is how many inmates out of their total population currently have the illness.

The state’s prisons with the highest rate of COVID-19 positive inmates are mostly in the Triangle region.

Nash Correctional Institution

  • Active Case: 145
  • Positivity rate: 23.8%

Robeson Confinement in Response to Violation Center

  • Active Case: 16
  • Positivity rate: 25%

Wake Correctional Center

  • Active Case: 121
  • Positivity rate: 35.8%

However, those reported numbers may look drastically different by next week. Just two weeks ago, Rutherford CC had a percent positive of 33.7 percent but DPS now reports it is down to zero percent.

Alexander Correction Institute has had the largest number of COVID-19 related deaths at six. At this point, the institution has no active cases.

See the spread of COVID-19 cases in state prisons using the map below.

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