As COVID-19 cases reach record levels nationally and statewide, in-person Department of Corrections facility visits will temporarily be suspended beginning Thursday under state guidance.
The DOC will reevaluate its in-person visiting and working policy in early February, the department said in a statement, with the hope that the omicron variant will recede as quickly as it came.
Of about 20,000 people living at DOC facilities, nearly 1,700 are currently in quarantine and another 1,384 are in isolation, according to DOC data, though 81.4% of inmates are fully vaccinated.
As statewide case counts increase to record levels, cases will likely increase across DOC institutions too, the statement said.
“DOC has not seen any corresponding increase in serious illness among people in our care, likely due to a combination of the high vaccination rate in our facilities and evidence that this Omicron variant causes less severe disease,” Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr said in a statement. “However, we feel making these temporary changes is the best way to protect our staff, those in our care and the communities surrounding our institutions.”
Under the new guidance, most volunteers, contractors, maintenance, agency staff and any other non-Corrections staff will temporarily lose access to DOC facilities, according to the statement.
There will be exceptions for religious volunteers, emergency service workers and people involved in “ongoing, necessary” facility projects, but those people will have to take rapid tests each time they enter a DOC facility.
Any meetings that people housed at DOC facilities would have with attorneys and professionals will have to be conducted over video and phone calls for now, the statement said. Calls from attorneys to people housed in department facilities are free, DOC spokesperson John Beard said, and attorneys foot the bill when their clients call them from state prisons and other facilities.
Since the pandemic, the DOC has offered incarcerated people two free phone calls and one video visit per week, Beard said, adding that video visit availability varies site by site.
As of Dec. 30, 33 people housed in DOC facilities have died from COVID-19, statistics show.
In the past month, the New Lisbon Correctional Institution had 502 new cases, followed by Dodge with 222 and Waupun with 101.
The statewide COVID-19 fatality rate is just under 1%, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, but omicron is less severe than past variants when it comes to hospitalizations and deaths.
Total COVID-19 case counts stayed relatively flat at DOC facilities until late September 2020, after which they surged from 1,000 to 10,000 cases in three months. COVID-19 rates flattened after that for the next year, but they began accelerating again in early January as omicron surged across the state.
This story corrects the percentage of prisoners who are fully vaccinated, 81.4%
Fave 5: Reporter David Wahlberg picks his top stories of 2021
COVID-19 dominated my year again as the State Journal’s health reporter, except for June and July, when it seemed we might overcome it. Vaccinations and variants were new angles this year. I also covered continuing deaths from the pandemic and challenges for health care workers.
During the summer dip in coronavirus activity, I wrote about a little-known hereditary disorder tied to several cancers, for which Fitchburg-based Promega Corp. has developed related testing.
This fall, I spent much of my time working on a three-day series about newborn screening, focusing on how the testing varies among states. If you were born since the mid-1960s or had a child since then, you’ve almost certainly taken part in this screening, which looks for rare diseases for which prompt treatment can prevent death or disability.
I love transplant stories. Dr. Matt Wolff had quite a backstory to his heart-kidney transplant.
In February, I wrote six more vignettes about people who died from COVID-19.
Little-known Lynch syndrome is more common than BRCA mutations for breast cancer.
In September, I visited the COVID-19 unit at St. Mary's. These dedicated workers are tired.