DOCCS mandates COVID test, vaccination for visitors

The entrance to Coxsackie Correctional Facility on Route 9W in Greene County. File photo

ALBANY — Visitors entering state correctional facilities will be required to show a recent negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination starting Monday after union officials requested stricter visitation protocols amid the virus’s winter surge.

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision updated its guidance late Thursday announcing it will require all visitors and vendors provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of their visit to a facility’s officer in charge.

Physical contact between a visitor and the incarcerated individual is prohibited — reinstating a safety measure the department enforced last year at the initial height of the pandemic.

“As we continue to monitor the effects of COVID-19 within our institutions and in the outside communities, particularly with the new Omicron variant, we are seeing an increase in the positivity rate across New York state,” according to a statement posted on the department’s COVID-19 report Thursday. “Our greatest concern continues to be the safety and well-being of our employees and those individuals within our care, custody and supervision, particularly during this ongoing public health emergency.”

The new visitation protocols take effect indefinitely starting Monday.

Visitors can submit either their paper U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 vaccination record, a printed copy of an Excelsior Pass or other valid proof of full vaccination, or a paper copy of a negative test.

The number of active COVID-19 cases within state prisons has increased more than 35% since Dec. 10, with 442 active virus cases in prisons as of Dec. 10 and 596 active cases as of Monday. The number of active cases increased to 634 infections Tuesday, according to DOCCS.

Four incarcerated New Yorkers who died from COVID complications have been added to the department’s online dashboard in the last month, including one person held at Albion Correctional Facility in Orleans County, one at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Westchester County and two within the last week at Mohawk/Walsh prison hospice facility, Oneida County, within Mohawk Correctional.

One of the COVID deaths took place in April, but was added to the virus dashboard this month after the department received the autopsy report indicating the death was COVID-related, according to DOCCS. To date, 39 incarcerated New Yorkers have died from coronavirus complications.

One additional DOCCS staffer died from the virus this month, bringing the total number of COVID staff fatalities to 15, according to DOCCS.

The department’s announcement early Thursday evening comes one day after New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association President Michael B. Powers penned a letter to DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci urging the commissioner to temporarily suspend visitation at the state’s 50 correctional facilities or impose more stringent safety protocols to require visitors and vendors show a recent negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination.

Powers declined to comment Thursday on the altered visitation protocol.

At-home tests kits will be available to visitors at each facility’s visitor processing starting Jan. 3, for any visitor who cannot show proof of vaccination and who has not presented a negative test within 48 hours.

The visitor will be required to exit the facility, perform the self-test in their vehicle or other outside area and return for continued processing only if they test negative for the coronavirus.

The visitor must present the negative test result to the officer in charge to be processed for a visit, according to DOCCS.

A person is considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at least two weeks after receiving the second dose of a two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna coronavirus vaccine, or Johnson & Johnson/Janssen’s single-dose inoculation.

All New York state employees, including DOCCS staff, were required to have at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose as of Oct. 12, or undergo weekly testing until fully vaccinated.

To date, 17,669 DOCCS staff, or about 69.5% have reported they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 via the state employee submission portal, DOCCS spokesman Thomas W. Mailey said.

As of Wednesday, 16,050, or 52.1% of incarcerated individuals have been partially or fully vaccinated, or fully vaccinated with an additional booster dose.

Visiting rooms will operate at half-capacity to ensure social distancing, and outside visiting areas will be used if weather permits.

All visitors, incarcerated individuals and staff are required to wear a face mask during processing and the visit, regardless of vaccination status or proof of a negative test result.

Masks may be temporarily removed for processing, and while eating or drinking items purchased from the vending machines, according to the department, and cannot have any pictures, writings or sayings printed on them.

The visit will be denied to any visitor without a face mask.

Visitors will answer health care screening questions and undergo a temperature check before being allowed to enter.

Tables, vending machines and other shared areas are disinfected after each visit, according to doccs.ny.gov.

The total incarcerated population in state correctional facilities is 30,821 people as of Wednesday, representing a reduction of more than 12,700 people since Jan. 1, 2020, or a 58% decline from since the department’s high of 72,773 people behind bars in 1999. The state’s incarcerated population is at its lowest total since 1984, according to DOCCS.

Visitation was suspended in state prisons at the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, and resumed Aug. 5, 2020.

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