Board of Health approves vaccine mandate for prison staff, state health workers

By: - September 10, 2021 1:14 pm

The Nevada National Guard assisting with vaccinations at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs in June (Nevada Department of Corrections photo).

In order to prevent COVID-19 from surging at prisons and state-licensed health facilities, the Nevada Board of Health voted Friday to mandate employees at those facilities get vaccinated. 

Only four of the six board members were present Friday, but they voted unanimously to require Nevada Department of Correction’ staff and state health workers to become fully vaccinated by Nov. 1, allowing for religious and medical exemptions. 

DuAne Young, the policy director with the governor’s office, told board members that 4,543 inmates and 1,104 corrections staff have already contracted Covid, with a large spike occurring from late October to January. 

He warned another increase could be coming.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing another wave of Covid now and we are back to where we were in December with hospitalizations increasing and bed capacity decreasing,” he said. “We don’t want to repeat the winter of 2020, but given this trend if we don’t take swift action we are facing that direction.”

He added the rise in infections cost Nevada “$9.2 million in overtime since the course of the pandemic to cover the shifts of the officers who have been infected” by the virus.

NDOC has struggled to boost vaccination rates and Gov. Steve Sisolak called their low numbers “atrocious and not acceptable” during a July Board of Prison Commissioners meeting.  

“The current overall vaccination percentage of the Department Corrections is 43% vaccines and 57% unvaccinated,” Young said Friday. 

Corrections officials told the Nevada Current in late August that 69% of inmates were vaccinated and 55% of staff had been vaccinated. Several positive cases prompted NDOC to stop visitations at Ely State Prison in August. 

In addition to prisons, Young told the board that Covid rates have been concerning at health facilities. 

“At the two, state-run forensic psychiatric hospitals 95% of the infections have been on the staff of these facilities. Again, we have an obligation to protect those entrusted to our care,” he said. “Within the Division of Family Services, the facilities have shown 62% of Covid infections with staff. Many of these facilities serve children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated.”

The state health facilities specifically named in the mandate include:

  • Caliente Youth Center;
  • Desert Regional Center Intermediate Care Facility;
  • Desert Willow Treatment Center;
  • Lake’s Crossing Center’
  • Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services Dini Townsend Hospital;
  • Nevada Youth Training Center;
  • The North, Enterprise and Oasis Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facilities;
  • Southern Nevada Adult Mental Services Rawson-Neal Hospital;
  • Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services Stein Hospital;
  • Summit View Youth Center.

“We as a board have required vaccinations for people who work with the vulnerable for a very long time under Nevada statute, so this is just an expansion given the current situation with a new virus that needs to be addressed through the same mechanism,” said Jeffrey Murawsky vice chair for the board.

The board’s decision comes a day after President Joe Biden announced stricter vaccine requirements among federal employees and contractors as well as for health care workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid health insurance programs. 

Several correctional staff, including one prison nurse, along with a few health care workers called into the meeting to oppose the mandates and threatened mass resignations if approved.  

Young said requiring vaccines is about protecting those vulnerable and within state care, adding that “we took an oath and a vow to serve those who cannot and did not have a voice or the ability to protect and serve themselves.”

“I understand that this policy has been met with some controversy. I understand that many people feel that their rights are being imposed on,” Young said. “In order to change the trajectory of our path as a state, in order to protect the people who are entrusted to our care, we must take big and bold actions and we must require mandates for vaccinations for those employees who are serving these vulnerable populations.”

He added he hoped the state’s increased action on Covid will persuade businesses to take similar approaches.

“My grandmother always taught me to clean your own house before you comment on someone else’s,” Young said. “We hope by taking this action we will encourage all of our partners in the private sector to have the courage to take similar actions throughout all types of business and organizations in Nevada.”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.