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Virus cases rise at HCCC: Total of 77 inmates, 9 staff members infected

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A police officer watches the front entrance of Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo on Tuesday.

A COVID-19 outbreak at Hawaii Community Correctional Center has grown to include 77 inmates and nine staff members, the state Department of Public Safety announced Tuesday.

Tuesday’s totals include six new inmate cases and eight new positive test results.

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Two positive cases were first reported at the Hilo jail on May 24.

DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said contact tracing and an investigation have been conducted by the state Department of Health, but the preliminary cause in most cases appear to be from community spread.

“The jail population is transient, and as long as inmates continue to come in from the community, there will always be concern for new virus introduction,” she said.

Schwartz said DPS is doing “everything in its power” mitigate community spread in the state’s correctional facilities and will continue to follow a pandemic plan based on state and federal guidelines.

According to a department news release, the HCCC pandemic protocol includes a facilitywide quarantine of all inmate housing and suspending inmate movement going out of the facility.

Ongoing testing is being implemented by HCCC health care staff with assistance from the DOH and Hawaii National Guard.

“We understand that eight employees at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center with direct exposure to the inmates have tested positive for COVID-19,” Mayor Mitch Roth said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “With those employees being from and very much a part of our communities here on Hawaii Island, we are asking our residents to remain cautious.

“What is happening at HCCC is a very real and stark reminder of how fast the virus can spread in such a short amount of time,” he continued. “To best keep our friends, families and loved ones safe, we would like to encourage our residents to get vaccinated and continue practicing our social distancing measures.”

According to Roth, DPS, DOH and Hawaii County Civil Defense are working to stop the spread and will be contacting residents who might be considered close contacts.

“In the meantime, stay safe, remain cautious, and be mindful of those around you,” Roth urged. “We are very close to beating this virus and returning to normalcy, but we must do all we can to prevent ourselves from tripping at the finish line.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Big Island physician, said in a livestream on Monday that a reluctance to be inoculated is leading to outbreaks within Hawaii’s jails.

“I’ll be straight with you. Some of our public safety folks have been reluctant to get vaccinated, and that’s not something I am proud of,” he said. “I think that everyone who works front-facing others, especially those who are vulnerable, must get vaccinated.”

Additionally, Green said only 25% to 50% of inmates have been inoculated, “and that’s why they’re having outbreaks.”

If 60% to 70% of the prison population was vaccinated, outbreaks would be limited, he said.

“They actually would have their own microcosm of herd immunity there, and it would not be happening.”

Green, however, said a large percentage of those who are incarcerated are distrustful of authority and reluctant to be inoculated.

Schwartz said the vaccine was offered to all employees through community distribution clinics and mobile PODs, or points of dispensing.

“Staff are not required to report their private medical information, including if they have been vaccinated.”

According to Schwartz, DPS also has worked closely with the state Department of Health and District Health Offices on each island to coordinate and provide opportunities for inmates to receive the vaccine on a voluntary basis.

Because HCCC is a jail and houses pretrial detainees, the inmate population is “transient and changes by the hour” as courts order intakes and releases throughout the day, Schwartz explained.

“(DPS) offers the vaccine to all jail and prison inmates, but because jail custodies are only detained for a short amount of time, it’s not possible to give a total number or percentage of detainees who are fully vaccinated,” she said. “… We continue our effort to get all inmates vaccinated by offering the vaccine to inmates entering our correctional facilities, as well as to those that previously refused.”

There are 340 inmates at HCCC, although operational capacity is 226, Schwartz said.

Meanwhile, the DOH on Monday reported 56 new COVID-19 cases statewide, 19 of which were on the Big Island.

Hawaii County’s test positivity rate has soared to 3.4%, the highest in the state, compared to a statewide positivity rate of 1.1%.

More than 1.5 million vaccine doses have been administered statewide. Fifty-two percent of Hawaii’s population has completed a vaccination series.

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According to the DOH, 55% of the Big Island’s population — 110,561 people — has received at least one shot, while 44%, or 87,566 people, are fully vaccinated.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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