Gov. Cooper calls low vaccination rate among prison workers ‘most concerning’

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Raleigh’s Central Prison reported its first COVID-19 outbreak since the end of 2020 on Monday, just as Gov. Roy Cooper (D) is trying to urge more state workers to get the vaccine.

The Department of Public Safety said the outbreak includes eight employees who were placed on medical leave upon learning of their test results. The facility employs about 900 people, DPS noted.

Central Prison also admitted 15 inmates from other facilities in the last two weeks to be treated for COVID-19. The prison has a hospital that serves other facilities across the state. One of those people is still in medical isolation. There is also a 28-day moratorium now on visitation.

Gov. Cooper has said the low rate of vaccinations among prison workers is “the most concerning” of the data recently released on vaccination rates among employees under his authority.

The Department of Public Safety says 51 percent of employees are fully vaccinated, compared to 64 percent for the state’s adult population.

“We know that we need to increase that number,” Gov. Cooper said Monday. “The Department of Public Safety is working on incentive plans. We know that with prison inmates, some incentives have been used, that it’s been effective.”

The vaccination rate among inmates was 69 percent as of Sept. 17, according to DPS.

Cooper did not say what incentives may be offered to employees who have not been vaccinated yet.

“We tried incentives across the state. Some of them have been effective. Some of them haven’t been as effective as we want,” he said.

He recently ordered nearly 60,000 state workers in Cabinet-level agencies either to get the vaccine or be tested at least weekly.

“COVID’s not over. And, I don’t expect this will be the last time this happens,” said Ardis Watkins, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. “In institutional settings, it’s where it’s easiest to spread, easiest to go wild.”

Watkins said some employees are concerned about the 80-hour limit on paid leave that they have for pandemic-related reasons, such as having to quarantine.

She said that needs to be expanded, particularly in settings like prisons and healthcare facilities, where workers could face a greater likelihood of having to enter quarantine more than once.

“Where we can get people away from other people as we need to but without running them away from the job because we’re putting them in the hole,” she said.

Of the employees who tested positive as part of the recent outbreak at Central Prison, DPS officials said they did not have data on how many of them are vaccinated. They said the vaccination rate among employees at Central Prison overall is 75 percent, much higher than the rate for the prison system overall.

Dr. Arthur Campbell, chief medical officer for the prison system, recently said despite the spread of the delta variant, the positivity rate of tests in prisons has been below what it’s been for the general population. He said in September, the rate has been about 5.5 percent, while it’s remained above 10 percent in North Carolina for most of the month, according to the NC Dept. of Health and Human Services.

“We never relented on any of our testing, on any of our mitigation measures, both the screening coming into the prisons. We didn’t fully open up the prisons to visitors,” he said.

Various groups, including the North Carolina NAACP, reached a settlement with the state earlier this year to institute various safety measures in response to outbreaks that had occurred in prisons.

Cooper has not suggested he would mandate vaccinations for employees in prisons. Dr. Campbell said he’s concerned that could drive some employees to quit at a time when they’re already struggling to hire.

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