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Virus Outbreak at Big Island Jail Grows Among Inmates and Staff

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Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS
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HILO, Hawaii — A coronavirus outbreak at a Big Island jail continued to grow as officials scrambled to contain the spread among inmates and employees.

The state Department of Public Safety said Thursday an additional 22 inmates and four employees at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center had tested positive since Tuesday, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported.

A total of 99 inmates and 13 staff have now tested positive. Two cases were first reported at the Hilo jail on May 24.

The Department of Public Safety said the latest numbers were detected as part of a mass testing program.

“Vaccinations are a critical part of the Department of Public Safety’s efforts to mitigate spread of the virus among employees as well as the inmate population,” the department's director, Max Otani, said in a news release. “The constant intake and release of pre-trial detainees in the jails make it difficult for (the Department of Public Safety) to fully vaccinate this population."

Otani said jail and health officials are trying to "educate inmates on the safety of the vaccine.”

The county is working with the state to help stop the outbreak.

“Most importantly, our role is about managing the possibility of community spread between the employees affected, their families and our community at large,” said Cyrus Johnasen, a spokesman for Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth.

On Thursday, the Department of Health launched a public vaccination map that shows vaccination rates by ZIP code for each island.

“The vaccine is our best tool to move forward together as a state. These maps will allow us to work with partners to strategically schedule new vaccination clinics around the state,” state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said in the news release. “With this geographic information, we can deploy resources where they are needed most and bring the vaccine to where people live, work and play.”

According to the map, more than 70.1% of Hilo residents have received at least one vaccine dose.

Earlier this week, Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is also a Big Island doctor, said vaccine hesitancy among inmates and staff is contributing to the outbreak.

“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,” Green said. “I think that everyone who works front-facing others, especially those who are vulnerable, must get vaccinated.”

The Department of Public Safety said employees are not required to report their vaccination status.

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