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The Nevada Independent

About a quarter of prison employees vaccinated against COVID-19 as virus takes heavy toll behind bars

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
Criminal JusticeState Government
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About a quarter of staff members within Nevada prisons have been vaccinated against COVID-19 as of mid-January, with the agency expecting other staff members who want it to receive it within three weeks.

The Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) provided the information in response to questions from The Nevada Independent about the rollout of the vaccine behind bars. The prison system has been hard-hit by the virus, with more than 40 percent of the approximately 10,200 inmates — and 36 percent of the approximately 2,700 staff members — contracting it.

A state dashboard reflects that as of Friday, there have been 5,413 cases among staff and inmates, along with 45 inmate deaths and four staff deaths. Most of the cases are recent; there were about 200 cases total within prisons in early November.

The rate of cases and deaths among inmates is more than triple that in the general population in Nevada, according to a tracker of prison COVID cases maintained by The Marshall Project.

Still, a priority list for vaccination was changed earlier this month to move inmates further back in line. In the “two-lane” system, prison staff are prioritized now based on their occupational category, while inmates are vaccinated in line with the general population based on their age, with the oldest first.

Prison officials said inmates would begin to receive vaccines after onsite vaccination of employees has concluded.

“Given that staff members interface with their communities, they are most likely to spread the virus to other staff and to susceptible inmates,” agency officials wrote. “As such, the NDOC has prioritized the vaccination of employees.”

The agency said staff vaccination began in December, with 746 employees inoculated as of Jan. 20. Some are waiting for appointments in the community, while others are waiting for the recommended 90-day period to elapse after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Officials didn’t say whether any staff members have declined the vaccine, but said they are encouraging employees to get it.

Prison officials provided a general update on their operations on Monday morning at a meeting of the Nevada Board of Prison Commissioners. That group includes Gov. Steve Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske.

They also fielded criticism from public commenters who think the state isn't taking sufficient action to curb the spread of COVID-19, even while other states have released vulnerable inmates early.

"We are rapidly approaching a 50 percent positivity rate of all incarcerated people. As a state we have done almost nothing to slow the spread, with incarcerated people moved off of the vaccine priority list," said Nick Shepack of the ACLU of Nevada. "It is critical that we take action now. Failure to do so will lead to more preventable deaths."

This story was updated at 12:50 p.m. on Jan. 25, 2021 with more recent statistics on employee vaccination and information from Nevada Board of Prison Commissioners meeting.

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