Unvaccinated staff in Wyoming prisons leads to rise in cases


CASPER — Coronavirus cases are again on the rise in Wyoming prisons thanks largely to unvaccinated employees, the Department of Corrections says.

According to an official update released Friday, the most recent round of testing found 24 positive results across three facilities. Of those, 15 were staff and the rest were inmates.

The Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk and the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington each found nine cases, with all nine at WMCI appearing in staff members. Out of six positive results found at the state penitentiary in Rawlins last week, five were among employees.

That’s up from the week before, when 16 total cases were found. Six of those came from staff.

“Historically, we’ve had far more positives in our inmate population, as a percentage of the population, than we’ve had for staff,” Wyoming Department of Corrections spokesperson Paul Martin said Wednesday. “I think that trend is changing now.”

The most recent data on vaccinations from WDOC shows a higher percentage of incarcerated people have been inoculated against COVID-19 than the staff working in the state’s facilities.

As of the end of July, Martin said 64 percent of inmates in WDOC prisons were fully vaccinated, and another 20 percent had received one shot.

At the same time, 35 percent of employees reported being fully inoculated. (That number is consistent with the roughly 38 percent of the general public in Wyoming that has been fully vaccinated.) Another 30 percent of corrections employees said they had one dose. Updated vaccination rates were not immediately available Wednesday.

“Our inmate numbers are not going up, our staff numbers are,” Martin said. “Without being medically trained… I attribute our lower numbers right now of inmate positives as a result of our higher numbers of vaccinations on the inmate side.”

Vaccinations are not required for anyone, Martin said, but are offered to employees and residents in prisons.

“Far more of our inmates have built the natural immunity to this as well,” Martin said, “because we’ve had outbreaks in almost all facilities … throughout this whole process.”

The only facility that reportedly did not experience an outbreak during the peak of the pandemic was the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk.

Research is not conclusive on how long immunity — or at least, some level of protection — lasts after a person recovers from a COVID-19 infection, but recent studies estimate it could be anywhere from six months to a year.

Transfers between facilities have still been happening as needed, Martin said. Most positive results among inmates are showing up during intake, as people are being tested while entering a facility from the outside.

When it comes to COVID precautions inside the state facilities, Martin said most of the department’s protocol — which aligns with guidance for prisons set out by the Centers for Disease Control — has stayed the same throughout the pandemic. Sanitation, distancing, face coverings and other PPE are still in effect.

The only policy relaxed in recent months, Martin said, was to begin allowing some in-person visits this summer, as long as residents and visitors were separated by plastic barriers.

In late July, an inmate at the Wyoming Honor Farm confirmed in a letter to the Star-Tribune that visitation had slightly opened up, after months of only video visits (The Star-Tribune is aware of this person’s identity, but has chosen to preserve their anonymity out of fear of retaliation).

They also said that masks continue to be required for anyone inside the facilities, and can only be taken off outside if you are at least six feet away from anyone.

An internal memo obtained by the Star-Tribune dated July 23 shows quarantine protocol for a unit in WMCI. During quarantine, which lasts for 14 days after a resident of a certain unit tests positive, meals and commissary items are delivered to cells directly. Video visits are also cancelled while a resident is in active quarantine.

Three Wyoming inmates have died from the coronavirus, according to WDOC. The deaths came during the winter spike in cases, after months of Wyoming being among only a handful of states without an inmate COVID death. Now, according to data from the Marshall Project, just four states have seen fewer deaths among prison residents related to the coronavirus.