LUSK – Staff at Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk received their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 6, a welcome step in keeping the virus out of the facility.
WWC has avoided COVID-19 outbreaks, recording zero cases among both staff and inmates as of press time Tuesday. WWC Warden Rick Catron said he attributes the facility’s success to strict enforcement of COVID-19 mitigating protocol, including face coverings, three times daily cleaning of facilities, social distancing and a 14-day isolation period for women coming from county jails.
The COVID-19 vaccine, he said, is an added layer of protection.
“It is amazing that the end of the pandemic is in sight,” Catron said in an interview with the Herald. “It’s really important in places like this, long term facilities, where it’s almost impossible to (maintain) six foot distance. I’m really glad the staff is getting (the vaccine).”
Visitation has been suspended since the pandemic’s onset in March and contractors doing work at the facility come during the late hours of the night, when inmates aren’t likely to be exposed, Catron said.
Catron said WWC is an example of the effectiveness of face coverings in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Last spring, a staff member exhibited symptoms and tested positive after working shifts at the facility, but due in part to their strict mask mandate, no one else tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Wyoming Department of Corrections (DOC) is not mandating that staff receive the vaccine, Catron said. After polling staff on whether or not they would be interested in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, roughly 40 staff members, 30% of that population, were vaccinated on Jan. 6 by their health contractor, Corizon Health. Melanie Pearce, DNP, Niobrara County Public Health nurse manager, said the county allocated 40 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to WWC staff.
It remains uncertain when the vaccine will be available to inmates, Catron said. The Wyoming Department of Health (WDH) released phases 1a and 1b of their distribution plan, neither of which include individuals who are incarcerated. According to WDH Public Information Officer Kim Deti, the state is working to identify who will be part of phase 1c.
Julie Tennant-Caine, deputy administrator with the DOC, said the WDH determines vaccination priority, but she expects inmates may be part of phase 1c.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidance for states on allocating vaccines to groups in phases 1a through 1c, none of which include incarcerated individuals. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) released guidance on equitable allocation of the COVID-19 vaccine, listing people in prisons as part of phase 2 priority groups.
Catron said women incarcerated at WWC have told him they are happy to have staff members they come in contact with vaccinated against COVID-19, given they are out in the community and can bring the virus inside the facility. However, it remains uncertain whether individuals who are vaccinated against COVID-19 can still carry and transmit the virus to others, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Staff and inmates at WWC will continue wearing masks and maintaining physical distance between one another for the foreseeable future, Catron said.
Inmates will not be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine either, according to Catron. He said he’s heard from women on both sides: those who are eager to be inoculated and those who are hesitant due to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) expedited approval of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.