Only 54% of state Corrections staff vaccinated against Covid-19, but state wary of mandate for fear of losing employees

The state is relying on testing, not a vaccine mandate, as it tries to walk the narrow path between thwarting Covid-19 outbreaks in prisons and keeping enough employees to run the prisons.

The overall staff vaccination rate is 54%, but the Department of Corrections may be more concerned abut the rate of staff vacancies.
“Our vacancy rate going into the pandemic was 20.6%,” Corrections Commissioner Connie Crews told a legislative committee last month. “Coming out of the pandemic, our vacancy rate is 50.36%. It is hard to run a prison with that much vacancy rate.”

Gov. Andy Beshear said last week if state prisons switched from a testing requirement to a hard vaccine mandate, “We might not have enough corrections officers to operate safely.”

The issue was raised by the Louisville Courier Journal, which asked the corrections department for current staffing figures, which turned down the request. “A 2019 report for the department indicated roughly 3,000 employees,” and the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex, where only 33% of staff are vaccinated, “employed 384 staff members — more than any other facility — and as of this month it housed 1,600 inmates, also the highest of state prisons.”

Other prisons with low vaccination rates among the staff “include the Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women in Oldham County (43%); Little Sandy Correctional Complex in Elliott County (40%); and Western Kentucky Correctional Complex in Caldwell County (42%),” Sonka reports.

The department requires workers who haven’t been vaccinated to be tested up to twice a week. Beshear said the requirement has “gone generally well,” but “If I could figure out the best way to convince those officers, I would, because I care about them and they are exposed to so many people.”

At the legislative committee meeting, “Crews said the pandemic has been extremely hard on staff and inmates — with 48 inmates and five staff members dying from Covid-19 last year — exacerbating the pre-existing trouble state prisons had attracting and retaining staff for difficult jobs with very low pay.”

Crews noted that inmates’ vaccination rate is much higher, about 83%. She “noted that the recent COVID-19 outbreak at the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex had not led to as many inmates facing serious illness and hospitalization as a previous outbreak in March, before vaccinations were common,” Sonka reports.

Last week the department reported 90 active cases among inmates, 38 at the women’s prison and 40 at the Western Kentucky complex.
The Northpoint Training Center in Boyle County had the highest vaccination rate, 71%, “while the rate is 70% at the Southeast State Correctional Complex in Floyd County and Kentucky State Reformatory in Oldham County,” Sonka reports.
Rated for other facilities are: Blackburn Correctional Complex, Lexington, 58%; Bell County Forestry Camp, 53%; Green River Correctional Complex, Central City, 51%; Kentucky State Penitentiary, Eddyville, 56%; Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, Oldham County, 57%; and Roederer Correctional Complex, Oldham County, 60%.
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