As the omicron variant surges across the country, people in prisons and jails have been left vulnerable to a rapidly-evolving respiratory disease.
The COVID-19 positivity rate in Minnesota reached a record level of 15.6 percent at the beginning of January, yet we know the burden of COVID-19 in prisons and jails is much higher. On any given day in the past few weeks, the Minnesota prison system is rife with COVID-19 cases. For example, on Feb. 2, there were 1,542 positive cases among incarcerated people alone, not counting staff. Prisons and jails are doing double duty as their communities’ COVID-19 petri dishes. But while people on the outside can take precautions, incarcerated people can’t.
The very nature of congregate living in prisons and jails precludes physical distancing, adequate sanitation and personal hygiene. When exposed to the virus, incarcerated people are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease and/or death, due in part to high rates of chronic conditions and limited staff capacity for health care services to meet incarcerated people’s complex health needs.
These high rates of COVID-19 infections in prisons and jails aren’t just limited to the confines of these systems. The health of incarcerated people is inextricably linked to the health of our communities. We know that infectious diseases travel rapidly between communities and correctional facilities. We’ve seen it for centuries with tuberculosis, for decades with hepatitis C, and we’re seeing it now with COVID-19.
Nationally, more than 405,000 correctional staff clock in, clock out, run errands in their community and return home daily. Their movement from work to home and the potential to spread COVID-19 is particularly concerning, especially if you consider that COVID-19 vaccination is lagging among Minnesota prison workers.
The apparent trade-off to resisting vaccination in the spirit of freedom, is that staff end up with less freedom when people are out sick. Resulting low staffing levels give staff less freedom to take a day off, less freedom to socialize in their personal lives, less freedom to feel physically safe in the workplace and to do one’s work well. The implications of COVID-19 surges in prisons and jails are taking a toll on workers, contributing even more to burnout, unsafe working conditions for staff and unsafe living conditions for those incarcerated.
Minnesota’s attempt to give state employees time to warm up to the idea of protecting public health has been a failure. It’s time for Gov. Tim Walz to insist the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) live up to its mission of “transforming lives for a safer Minnesota.” Adequately protecting people from COVID-19, and taking all the necessary measures to do so, absolutely falls within the scope of the mission the Minnesota Department of Corrections and other public safety departments across the state.
We should join the other states and counties that have reached the same conclusion that prison and jail staff must be subject to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Last month, the governor of Illinois began requiring vaccinations for Department of Corrections guards. New Jersey recently dropped its testing option and is requiring staff in correctional facilities to be fully vaccinated — including being boosted.
Closer to home, the Mayo Clinic granted religious exemptions to most employees who requested them, and fired only 1 percent who simply refused the vaccine. We suspect that efforts from Minnesota leadership to promote workplace safety and improve working conditions for DOC employees would help mitigate any resignations over a vaccine mandate.
Minnesota must also provide every incarcerated person the opportunity to get COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters on a regular basis. Along with this is a need for investing in community-led COVID-19 education efforts to address concerns and a long history of mistrust. We acknowledge the United States’ ugly history of medical experimentation on and abuse of people behind bars. And we argue that failing to take measures to increase access to timely, trusted, culturally-relevant information and access to vaccines for this population constitutes further systemic racism and exacerbates existing racial health disparities.
With the omicron variant’s alarming surge, the state government should invest in making high-quality masks (KN95 or N95) readily and consistently available to prison and jail employees and the incarcerated individuals in their care. Even better, leverage funding to support other proven public health measures inside, such as HEPA air filtration systems.
In the midst of America’s bizarre politicization of the behavior of an unpredictable virus, it’s imperative that the state of Minnesota demand that employees in congregate living facilities do their part to protect the public’s health. In the absence of similar federal expectations, we call on the governor to make Minnesota an example — and exemplar — of best policy and practice to protect the health of staff, incarcerated people and our communities.
Rebecca Shlafer, Katie Pierson and Ingie Osman are all employees at the University of Minnesota, where they lead a CDC-funded project focused on COVID-19 vaccine confidence and uptake in prisons and jails.