WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A few weeks ago, Tabor Correctional had hundreds of active cases of the virus, at one point having the most in the state, but that number has since dropped to just four active cases.
According to DPS, 548 people have recovered from the virus in the correctional institution.
Chief medical officer for the NC Division of Prisons Dr. Arthur Campbell says the past several months have been a struggle, with Tabor Correctional seeing record case numbers and even two inmate deaths in the facility, but the work continues to implement protective protocols and stop the spread of the virus.
DPS has dozens of protocols in place and a strong emphasis on testing.
They’re targeting two critical groups: people who come into the facilities from local jails, and also the men and women who staff the prisons. Earlier this month, they began a program testing all staff members every two weeks.
Dr. Campbell credits the lower case numbers across the state to better understanding of the virus, increased testing and improved contact tracing.
“What we have noticed is they really reflect the community in which the prison is in, so you know, as we see a rise in the local community, we subsequently see a rise in the prisons,” said Dr. Arthur Campbell. “It’s taken some time unfortunately, but I think that we’re doing pretty well in the prisons. People like to focus on the prisons, we are at a much higher risk because we are a congregate living center and it’s incredibly difficult to keep folks separated when you have an offender that’s positive.”
Social distancing is difficult to do when inmates are living in dormitory-type settings just feet away from one another, however DPS says they tried to utilize single- person cells when possible. Additionally, the state has the lowest number of offenders behind bars right now then they have had in decades, according to Campbell.
Early in the pandemic, state leaders made a motion to allow hundreds of nonviolent individuals to serve their sentence in the community.
“It’s a matter of working within the constraints of the environment and again public safety being number one priority, we gotta make sure we do it safety and we protect our community, so it’s a balance, it really is. I’m not gonna lie, it’s not easy but I think we certainly have done the best we can do accomplish it,” said Campbell.
The path forward though, is made easier with a vaccine roll out already underway. DPS leaders were on calls Thursday laying out vaccine distribution plans. They don’t yet know which version of the COVID-19 vaccine they will receive from the state, but frontline healthcare professionals working in prisons will get their vaccine shortly. Afterwards, high risk inmates will be eligible. The general offender population will likely have the choice whether or not to get the vaccine when the general public does this spring.
The vaccine though isn’t mandatory in prisons and Dr. Campbell says the future of the virus really depends on how many people opt to get their shot.
“This is the way for prisoners to be able to see their loved ones in the prison, it’s the way for us to resume a lot of our programs that we have for offenders. A lot of those have had to be suspended over time because we can’t have large group class settings and all those things, so all the things that we’ve had to halt can be put back in place and we can start doing our job, which is taking care of these folks and preparing them ultimately to leave the prison and make a life for themselves.”