Gov. Cooper calls low vaccination rate among prison employees ‘most concerning’

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Gov. Roy Cooper (D) called the low COVID-19 vaccination rate among employees in state prisons “the most concerning” of the new data released in recent days about how many workers under his authority are fully vaccinated.

The Office of State Human Resources released additional data Wednesday, now including the vaccination rates of all agencies subject to the new requirement Cooper put in place for state workers to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.

“Clearly, in our law enforcement community, our corrections officials community, we have a lot more work to do,” Cooper said. “It’s probably the most concerning because we know that they’re in close quarters and in congregated populations.”

In the Department of Public Safety, about 53 percent of employees are fully vaccinated, according to state data. The agency has the most employees (21,804) who are subject to Cooper’s order but also the lowest vaccination rate. Within Public Safety, about 51 percent of prison workers are fully vaccinated.

For the state as a whole, 63 percent of adults are fully vaccinated.

The highest vaccination rate was reported within the Office of State Human Resources, where 93 percent of workers are fully vaccinated. The agency reported vaccination rates for the first time this week for the Commerce and Health and Human Services departments, which were 80 percent and 75 percent, respectively.

“It’s positive that many state agencies are reporting high percentages of vaccinated employees. But, here again, there’s more work to do,” Cooper said.

The North Carolina NAACP was among groups that reached a settlement with the state earlier in the pandemic, instituting various safety measures in state prisons and calling for the accelerated release of at least 3,500 prisoners.

Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the NC NAACP, came to Raleigh Wednesday to call attention to the ongoing concerns in the state prisons, saying he’s worried about COVID-19 transmission and the low vaccination rate among employees.

“They are willing to undergo vaccinations, but the people who are coming in and go home and come back in are not,” he said. “We’re going to continue to megaphone this because some of the things that are happening there are devastating.”

Cooper said leaders in the agency are discussing ways to incentivize workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Before his executive order took effect, prison employees already had to get tested every other week, said Dr. Arthur Campbell, chief medical officer for the prison system. So, the order simply added more frequent testing. Still, he said he’s optimistic it will lead to more employees choosing to get vaccinated.

When asked about the impact of the delta variant, he noted about 85 percent of cases have stemmed from people being transferred into the prison from county jails, calling it “the biggest vulnerability.” He said DPS is working with the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association and health officials to try to increase vaccinations.

Cooper noted the challenges that have existed with hiring in the prison system. DPS recently said the vacancy rate is about 30 percent. Campbell said he’s concerned a mandate to get vaccinated could exacerbate that problem.

“There’s a not-insignificant portion of them that may very well leave the job if a mandate were to be put in place. We’re seeing that across the country,” he said.

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