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Department of Corrections defends decision to require COVID-19 vaccines for employees

DOC employees must be vaccinated by Oct. 31
Dean Williams
Posted at 5:01 PM, Aug 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-19 13:14:44-04

Correction: Data that Denver7 reported in this story Wednesday referring to the number of inmates and staff from the Department of Corrections who currently have COVID-19 was outdated data from December 2020. Those data have been removed.

DENVER — The executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections defended the decision to require his employees to get vaccinated during a press conference on Wednesday with the governor.

Executive Director Dean Williams told reporters the decision was driven by the spread of the delta variant and a responsibility to protect the health of people under the DOC’s supervision.

“Our entire department toiled over this decision over the last few months. We certainly don’t want to lose staff as a result of this mandate,” Williams said.

The department had previously tried to encourage employees to get vaccinated using incentives like bonuses. However, those incentives only encouraged 5-10% of additional employees to seek out the COVID-19 vaccine.

The overall vaccination rate of DOC employees remains relatively low compared to inmate populations or the state as a whole.

While more than 72% of Colorado adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, only 58.7% of DOC staff have been vaccinated. Meanwhile, 64% of inmates are fully vaccinated and another 8% have received their first dose.

Like the rest of the state, the pandemic has also taken a toll on these prisons. Fifteen inmates have died from COVID-19 during the course of the pandemic.

Williams wants 90% of his staff fully vaccinated for the sake of health. However, he realizes this will be an unpopular decision for some.

“They may not like it, but my hope and prayer is that they come along with it even if they’re a little unhappy about the decision,” Williams said. “Would it be tough if we had a large exodus of staff? Yeah, of course it would be, there’s no kidding about that, but I am anticipating that more staff will come around.”

The DOC is no stranger to staffing shortages. At one point during the height of COVID-19, the DOC had 500 staff members of its 6,182 member staff out after either contracting or being exposed to COVID-19.

The department has asked employees to work overtime, expedited its recruitment process, created temporary positions and asked some to come out of retirement to help fill holes. It’s also working on other contingency plans in case a number of staffers do decide to quit.

This time around, the incentives will not be given out to employees who receive the vaccine. Williams says the department also discussed the bonuses and ultimately decided it would be unfair to offer those incentives with the new mandate since other staffers already voluntarily received the vaccine.

The DOC is also planning on requiring some inmates to get vaccinated in order to be eligible for certain work programs, like those who help take care of other sick and elderly inmates.

“People who are in our transitional work programs or work for correctional industries, we’re going to tell those inmates, 'Hey, if you want to have one of those jobs, you just need to be vaccinated,’” he said.

However, Williams does not anticipate this will be as much of a challenge since many inmates are already vaccinated and those jobs are coveted.

The real challenge will be getting his own employees to comply.