Note: This is a guest column by Todd Ishee, Commissioner of Prisons in North Carolina, regarding the work there during the coronavirus pandemic.
RALEIGH, N.C. — It’s been a year since the pandemic first hit our state prison system.
We’ve endured an awful year of heartbreak, surprises, adaptation, perseverance and the most logistically complicated mass-vaccination initiative since the polio vaccine was rolled out in the 1950s.
The hard work is paying off. The vaccines are making a huge difference. They are working.
A year ago, the first handful of COVID-19 cases emerged in the offender population, and we were about to realize the impacts this awful virus would have on our prison system, our communities and the nation.
Faced with our first outbreak of the virus, we provided mass testing of all the offenders at Neuse Correctional in Goldsboro a year ago today, on April 15-16.
We were shocked to discover more than 450 offenders were infected, and almost none of them (around 98 percent) exhibited any symptoms at all and never developed symptoms.
We didn’t fully realize until then what was about to hit us. No one did.
While some questioned the likelihood of such extensive viral spread from asymptomatic offenders, we didn’t doubt. Instead, we prepared.
Our Correction Enterprises plants began production of hundreds of thousands of face masks and thousands of gallons of disinfectant, and we ordered large supplies of medical-grade PPE.
We created medical isolation and quarantine protocols, housing unit cohorts, offender transfer requirements and COVID-19-testing procedures.
We shut down the prisons to all but essential prison personnel. We stopped offender work release. And we did much, much more.
Over the past year, we’ve been resilient. We’ve adapted. We did not give up. We did not give in. We persevered. It’s been tough on everyone.
There were dark days, incredibly bleak days, but we did not despair. We stuck with the 3 Ws. We stuck with our virus prevention and mitigation strategies. We stuck close to our partners at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
When the days were darkest, last fall and winter, we doubled down and worked even harder.
We ramped up offender COVID-19 testing (we’ve now completed 127,000 tests and counting). We implemented testing of all prison staff every two weeks (now at 114,000 tests and counting). We further tightened our protocols.
Thanksgiving and Christmas were awful for the prison system, just about the darkest times we faced in this pandemic.
How bad was it?
• 36 prisons (more than half) were designated either red or orange due to outbreaks
• one prison was designated a hotspot
• 430 offenders had active cases of COVID-19
• Seven were in the hospital
• 577 staff were off the job due to COVID-19
At one point in January, more than 700 staff were off the job due to COVID-19.
We began receiving weekly vaccine allocations from DHHS on Jan. 20. As those initial shots were going into arms that day:
• Half of our prisons (28 of them) were on red or orange status
• 465 offenders had active cases of COVID-19
• 33 new offender cases were discovered just that morning
• 566 staff were off the job due to the virus.
Today, three months later, we are in a vastly improved position. This is due to our hard work, safety protocols and the vaccine.
So far, more than half of the offenders are partially vaccinated and almost half the staff are partially vaccinated.
Here is where we are today, April 15, 2021:
• After a day with more than 550 tests on offenders, ZERO new positives!
• 21 offenders have active cases of COVID-19
• 1 offender is in the hospital
• No prisons are on red status
• Only nine prisons are designated orange
• Around 130 staff are off the job due to the virus
It’s an amazing improvement!
Along the way, we were heartbroken to lose 12 staff to this awful virus, and more than 50 offenders with serious underlying health conditions.
Along the way, we worried every day about our health, our families’ health, and the health of our colleagues.
This is not over. The pandemic is not defeated. I am now, however, cautiously optimistic.
This substantial improvement since the vaccines arrived in mid-January is not a coincidence.
This is the result of our staff’s hard work, meticulous attention to detail, and to their commitment and resiliency over the past year. They are heroes.
And this improvement also is a result of this simple fact: The vaccines work. They help protect people from the potentially deadly, or in some cases debilitating, virus.
The vaccines used in our prisons are safe. They are effective. They are tested.
We’ve all been in this together. We need to get out of this together.
Everyone should, at the very least, talk with their doctor about getting the shot and then roll up their sleeves.
They should do it for their families. They should do it for those they work with and for everyone around them.
If nothing else, they should do it for themselves.
The vaccine is the path out of this pandemic. It’s working!