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How Kansas Prisons Dodged A Delta COVID Surge After Getting Hit Hard Early In The Pandemic

Razor wire and a chain-link fence
Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service

Kansas prisons were hotbeds of coronavirus infections early in the pandemic, but vaccinations appear to have protected those inmates living in close quarters.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Two out of every three Kansas inmates have had COVID-19 and Kansas saw the fifth-highest infection rate of prisoners in the country through the course of the pandemic.

But when the delta variant began driving up cases across the state, Kansas prisons largely avoided another surge because more than three-fourths of inmates had been vaccinated — a far higher rate than the general population.

The decrease in reported cases coincides with vaccine availability for inmates. At roughly 78%, Kansas has the 11th most vaccinated inmate population in the country, according to a prisoner advocacy group. Barely 50% of all Kansans have received at least one vaccine dose.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a left-leaning policy group, compiled its “States of Emergency”report with data from The Marshall Project, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The COVID Prison Project and UCLA’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.

There were 6,114 COVID-19 cases from the start of the pandemic in early 2020 through March 1, 2021, at Kansas Department of Corrections facilities.

But after vaccines became available, the state prison system saw 72 cases from March through Sept. 2.

Charlie Hunt, the deputy director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, said vaccinations have proven their impact in jails and prisons.

“If we can get as many people vaccinated as possible,” he said, “it’s going to provide protection for both the individual and for the community.”

Mitigation strategies like social distancing can be difficult in correctional facilities because they weren’t built to handle a pandemic, said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“When a vaccine holds up in a prison, that really tells you it has a lot of power to control the infections,” Adalja said. “We know in the pre-vaccine era, prisons were hotbeds of spread.”

Some prisons still struggle to manage the virus. Four correctional facilities were listed as COVID-19 clusters by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Friday morning. The Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka had 24 total cases of COVID-19 by mid-August before it reported 19 cases since then. That’s the second-highest total of any active cluster in the state behind a USD 323 middle school.

Kansans under 18 years old currently have the lowest vaccination percentage of any age group in the state, but vaccinations for children 12-18 were only approved months ago.

Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, said states should also consider reducing the prison population by releasing more inmates before the end of their sentences. She said the close quarters of jails and prisons remain a threat to foster clusters of infections, particularly when nearly a fourth of inmates have yet to get vaccinated.

“We’ve known from the beginning of the pandemic, that just as in nursing homes and in other crowded areas, this virus spreads very, very fast in prisons,” she said. “The only way to really slow it down is to let people go home.”

Bertram said prisons were already overcrowded before the pandemic. Kansas got an “F” from the States of the Emergency report, primarily because it didn’t embrace aggressive early release programs. Another 42 other states also got an “F.”

The state also received a failing grade on data availability from UCLA’s Behind Bars study, noting it couldn’t find the number of tests conducted for staff or inmates. As of Monday, the Kansas Department of Corrections still hadn’t provided the number of inmates it has tested throughout the pandemic.

“Ultimately, getting vaccination rates high enough to mitigate transmission is going to be the way out of this, particularly with variants like delta,” Hunt said. “Vaccination is going to be the most effective way to turn the pandemic.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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