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Director hopes more inmates take vaccine amid MCCC outbreak

83 inmates have tested positive; overcrowding is not helping

Otani

The state’s public safety director is advocating for more inmates to take the COVID-19 vaccine in hopes of slowing an outbreak at the Maui Community Correctional Center.

A total of 83 inmates have tested positive for the virus since the first case was reported Feb. 1.

Forty cases are still active. Last week, one staff member tested positive through independent testing but has since recovered, the department said Tuesday.

“I don’t know if there is an end in sight. I know if there was I would be really happy to know when it’s going to be,” recently confirmed Public Safety Director Max Otani said Tuesday afternoon. “(Inmates) keep coming in. If inmates refuse vaccination, it’s not helping the situation also. So if inmates could be encouraged to take the vaccine, then we are pretty sure we can get this under control a lot faster.”

The state Department of Health’s Maui District Health Office has made two stops at the jail to provide first doses to inmates; 54 percent of about 300 inmates have received first shots, Otani said in a phone interview with The Maui News. About 150 inmates received the shot on Feb. 22. Only 16 elected to get a vaccine on Monday.

“It’s a little bit disappointing, especially with the virus in the facility, that more people are not taking advantage of the vaccine,” Otani said. “But then again, it’s done voluntarily and we can’t force people to take it.”

Otani was sworn in as public safety director on March 1, replacing Nolan Espinda, who retired in September, and Acting Director Fred Hyun, who served in the interim.

He did not have a breakdown of MCCC staff vaccinations but said that of the Public Safety Department’s 2,000 staff members statewide, about one-third have received at least their first shot.

As cases have mounted at the jail, family and community members of inmates have voiced concerns and held a sign-waving rally Friday. They have called for proper isolation and quarantining of inmates who have or are suspected of having COVID-19, proper care for sick inmates, mask-wearing at all times, proper following of federal guidelines and “prompt sharing of accurate data” on the jail’s COVID-19 infections.

The group said over the weekend that they will hold “ongoing protests” at the jail from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturdays “until improvements are actually made.” They encouraged residents with loved ones at the jail to connect with the group and be involved in discussions at tinyurl.com/Protect-Our-Inmates/.

“First of all, we are trying our best to take care of the inmates we have in our custody,” Otani said. “It’s unfortunate the virus was able to enter the facility, but we are aware of the concerns expressed by the families of the offenders. We are trying to address their concerns.”

Otani said department staff are making rounds twice a day at MCCC to do health checks on inmates. The department has also waived any copays for those wanting to see a doctor due to COVID-19 symptoms, in hopes of encouraging sick inmates to report their symptoms.

Officials are working to get health care staff around-the-clock to address inmate concerns, Otani said. Cleaning and other measures are also ongoing, he added.

But he emphasized that the overcrowding at the jail has made things difficult, especially when it comes to social distancing.

Otani said there were 306 inmates Tuesday at the jail, which has a design capacity of 209 inmates and an operating capacity of 301, according to the department.

Families have also raised concerns about inmates sleeping four to a cell, which was designed to hold two. Otani wasn’t sure if every cell at the jail held four inmates but said they are asked to sleep “head to toe” in a bunk bed setup, meaning they sleep in opposite directions on their bunks to maximize distance.

To compound the overcrowding problem, Otani said two dorms have been closed since eight adult corrections officers are receiving training on Oahu.

Otani said there could be more spacing of inmates if the two dorms were opened, but the facility will still be overcrowded.

Some have also suggested having inmates sleep in tents on the jail grounds, but Otani said this would raise security and sanitary issues and require more staff to watch over the inmates.

The department is also waiting to see if some MCCC inmates could be moved to the federal detention center on Oahu to ease Maui’s overcrowding, Otani said.

With relatives, inmates and some defense attorneys asking for the release of inmates amid the outbreak, Otani explained that inmates can only be released via a court order. Judges have been asked to review their cases to see if defendants could qualify to be out of custody prior to trial.

New inmates from the community are coming into the jail all the time, making the virus difficult to manage, Otani said. When inmates arrive at the facility, they are quarantined and given a COVID-19 test. However, Otani said the virus can still enter the jail if an inmate tests negative while in the COVID-19 incubation period. Others awaiting test results are housed together until results are reported, he added.

Otani said inmates are given proper personal protective equipment as well as hygiene items, but “the only thing we are challenged on is the social distancing at this point.” He thanked The Sewing Hui of Maui and the county for donating masks to the jail.

The department’s Health Care Division has developed a comprehensive pandemic response plan for all facilities based upon current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and approved by the Office of Correctional Health of the American Correctional Association. Each facility has adapted the plan to meet their individual facility needs, the department has said.

Otani said the state will continue testing inmates, though testing. So far 739 tests have been administered at MCCC. Testing is voluntary.

Due to health privacy laws, Otani could provide details on where the virus initially came from at the start of the outbreak but said staff did not bring it into the jail. The first staff member tested positive earlier this month. Otani said the Department of Health did the contact tracing after the jail’s initial case was revealed.

Looking back, Otani said, “I don’t know what else more they could have done” to stop the virus from spreading.

He said staff did a good job of not bringing the virus into the jail from the community during the yearlong pandemic.

Other facilities on Oahu experienced outbreaks much earlier than Maui and are now virus free.

For updates on the jail, visit dps.hawaii.gov and click on “PSD COVID-19 Information and Resources.” Department updates are also available on social media, including Facebook.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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