CHEYENNE — Last week, when three positive COVID-19 cases were detected at the Wyoming Honor Farm near Riverton, Justin Albertson started getting worried.
“My brother is an inmate (there),” his sister, Rachel Albertson, said in an interview, adding that he had not yet been vaccinated against the virus. He’s asthmatic, she said, and had asked for the vaccine multiple times since arriving at the Honor Farm. He was told he could not get a vaccine and was being “waitlisted,” she said.
When contacted for comment, Wyoming Department of Corrections officials said the vaccines at the facility “had expired and therefore no inmates could be vaccinated” early last week, according to Paul Martin, deputy administrator with the DOC’s transparency division.
“The facility is working with the local health department to acquire additional vaccines for administration,” he said in an email. “We are hoping to have more in stock by the end of the week. Any inmate wanting to be vaccinated upon receipt will be vaccinated.”
Albertson said that, ultimately, her brother did receive a vaccine last week.
“The nurse at the facility ran down to the health department to get him a vaccine,” she said. “But if they have a situation with a vaccine, or a schedule, I think they should be informing inmates of what that schedule is, so they don’t get into a panic about it.
“He told them he was high risk, he was worried about being on a cellblock with COVID patients, and it seemed like they were not providing vaccines for inmates,” Albertson said. “He has already had two asthma attacks since he was at the Honor Farm, so they were very aware of his high-risk status.”
After several weeks in a row with zero positive COVID-19 cases in Wyoming’s inmate population, 11 staff and inmates tested positive for COVID-19, according to an update released July 16. Another update sent out Friday said there were nine positive cases in the Department of Corrections system: four staff and one inmate at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington, two inmates at the Honor Farm and two inmates at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins.
About 50 percent of people within the Wyoming Department of Corrections system have received a COVID-19 vaccine, Martin said.
When COVID-19 vaccines first became available to Wyoming residents, they were also offered to Wyoming’s inmate population on the same schedule as the general public, he said.
“As soon as the vaccine became available to the various groups, they were made available to the inmates. Those inmates who were high risk were offered the opportunity to get the vaccine the same as anyone in Wyoming in those categories,” Martin said. “When those categories began to back off, more and more inmates have had the opportunity to get the vaccine. Now, all the inmates have had the opportunity to get the vaccine.”
Positive case data changes from week to week, and according to the July 16 data, 11 total confirmed positives were identified in routine surveillance samplings conducted during the previous week. Six were among WDOC staff.
“We absolutely encourage staff to get vaccinated through the local health-care sources, as they are available in the county,” Martin said. “Staff vaccinations are personal medical information, protected information, and we don’t track that.”
When there is a positive case among staff or inmates, the facility will conduct 100-percent comprehensive testing, he said. When that comprehensive testing results in no other positive cases, the facility drops back to 20-percent random sampling to test inmates and staff.
“It changes from week to week, and sometimes we have more staff (test positive), and sometimes we have more inmates test positive,” he said.
According to Kim Deti with the Wyoming Department of Health, it’s likely the delta variant is a current factor in rising infection rates in Wyoming.
“I do not know if it is tied to corrections,” she said. “The special sequencing of samples to determine variants is not always done immediately, and is not done for every case.”
The vast majority of recent, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths have involved people who were not yet fully vaccinated, Deti said. Three inmate deaths to date have been attributed to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
“We encourage anyone who is eligible to get vaccinated to do so as soon as possible, if they haven’t done so already,” Deti said. “The data indicate the delta variant is more easily transmitted than other strains of COVID, meaning it is easier to spread to other people and to spread it to more people.”
With respect to inmates having had direct or indirect contact with someone testing positive for COVID-19, and for those who have tested positive for COVID-19, WDOC “management of this virus department-wide has been quite good over the past 18 months,” Martin said.
“At (the Honor Farm), there is a wing of a living unit (comprised of four wings) that is entirely set aside as an isolation unit for those who test positive,” he said. “No inmate traffic is allowed on this wing unless the individual is on isolation status.”
For those inmates who have had exposure to a COVID-19 positive individual, they are quarantined to their assigned housing unit until they test negative for the virus. Unexposed inmates don’t share bathrooms, living spaces or common areas with either status inmates, according to Martin.
Overall, Deti said, the lower Wyoming’s vaccination rates, in combination with the delta variant, which is highly contagious, “the more at risk we are for seeing increased cases of COVID-19 and illnesses.”
“The best way for people to protect themselves against infection with COVID-19, including this highly transmissible variant, is to get vaccinated,” Deti said.