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A rare piece of good Covid-19 news: NC prisons appear to be a good test case for vaccine efficacy

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With Covid-19 rates rising across North Carolina, there’s one surprising population that’s avoided many new outbreaks: incarcerated people. State correctional facilities in New Hanover and Pender Counties currently have zero cases, even as the pandemic rages outside prison walls.

Early in the pandemic, prisons were a hotbed of Covid outbreaks. Nearly 1 in 6 incarcerated people tested positive in the North Carolina system since the start of the pandemic, and 55 of them died. That's compared to about 1 in 10 people in the entire population of North Carolina catching the virus.

But the vaccines changed everything for the prison population: out of 28,000 imprisoned people, just 0.1% of them have Covid.

John Bull, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, credits vaccinations with the change: 64% of prisoners and half of all correctional employees are now vaccinated.

“We now have a significant portion of both the staff and the inmates who work and live in the prison system who are vaccinated," Bull said. "As a result, we saw our positive rates just fall through the floor. It's really been remarkable.”

Even with the new Delta variant causing a jump in Covid cases across the state, the prison population has stayed around 20 to 40 active cases for months, compared to hundreds and hundreds earlier in the pandemic.

North Carolina has seen a rise in COVID cases this summer as Delta variant has taken over, surging to more than 6,000 new cases on August 9 compared to less than 1,000 on July 11.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services COVID-19 dashboard
North Carolina has seen a rise in COVID cases this summer as Delta variant has taken over. Prisons in the state have not seen a similar rise.

"This is an enduring legacy of the effectiveness of these vaccines," Bull said. "This has been a game-changer. It's been a lifesaver.”

Bull said the Covid cases that do come into prisons typically are a result of staff who contracted it in the outside world, or from new arrivals bringing Covid in from local jails (which, unlike prisons, are run by county-level law enforcement, and which see much higher rates of turnover of detainees — many of whom are only in the facility for a relatively short period of time compared to those serving prison sentences).

But outbreaks within prisons are now extremely uncommon, thanks to the vaccine and careful quarantine procedures.

As for prison staff, vaccination rates remain below the state average. But unvaccinated staffers are currently required to undergo Covid testing every two weeks, and will soon need to be tested once a week, Bull said.

Vaccinating the remaining unvaccinated staff and incarcerated individuals is a matter of education. "We've had town halls, we've had small gatherings, we had one on one conversations, and we'll continue to do this," Bull said. "there's the ongoing, never ending discussion about the benefits of the vaccine, and why it's really going over in their best interest here. It is the surest way to prevent Covid-19 infections or to prevent significant health ramifications from Covid-19"

The state has also released more than 1,500 people earlier than previously planned to help mitigate the pandemic, dropping the incarcerated population in the state to the lowest it has been since 1995. Those released from prison under the "Extending the Limits of Confinement" program then serve their remaining active sentence outside of a prison under the supervision of Community Corrections officers.

While that program doesn't qualify as early release, some imprisoned people are getting out early through Discretionary Sentence Credits, which drop prison time closer to the minimum sentence.

Limiting overcrowding can help prevent the spread, but the vaccines are what really make the difference, Bull said. "We would not be satisfied completely until everybody is vaccinated, both staff and offenders. That is the goal, that is the hope, that is the dream."