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Texas prison officials dropped mask mandates at some facilities. Worker deaths followed.

 The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is responsible for reporting COVID-19 data about prisons across Texas.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is responsible for reporting COVID-19 data about prisons across Texas.

The regulations were loosened around the same time that the delta variant of the coronavirus began to surge.

September was the worst month yet for Texas’ prison workers dying from COVID-19.

At least 13 staffers at Texas prisons and jails died last month, according to The Dallas Morning News. That’s more than than in the previous six months combined. And the increase in deaths came after state corrections officials loosened health and safety regulations in Texas lockups. 

Morning News investigative reporter Lauren McGaughy spoke with Texas Standard about how Texas prisons had safety measures in place that had kept death rates low for months. Listen to the interview with McGaughy above or read the transcript below to learn more about what changed and why.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: Talk us through some of the health and safety rules the Texas Department of Criminal Justice currently has in place for COVID 19.

Lauren McGaughy: After we all realized how serious this pandemic was becoming last spring, the state prison department put in a number of safety precautions, regular testing, they closed down visitation to the units from outside family members and, most importantly, public health officials said they instituted a systemwide mask mandate. This meant everyone had to wear a mask in the facility. There is no vaccine mandate in Texas; as you probably know, the state has banned such mandates, even for state workers. But there was a mask mandate, and public health experts believed that that was helping in some small way to slow the spread of the virus in these facilities.

The spike in the number of deaths is striking, and it comes after a period in which deaths among prison workers were rare. Can we attribute those deaths to lifting those rules or was there some other change that might have caused the increase?

It’s impossible to know exactly what’s happening. I mean, COVID hits people even who have been vaccinated, as we know now. But we do know that on July 1, the prisons department made two very, very important health decisions: they reopened visitation and they dropped mask mandates at any facility that had a 70% vaccination rate. Now, that’s a vaccination rate total, between inmates and staff, and that mask mandate getting dropped also applies to any visitors coming in and out. And so basically, there need be no masks in any unit with that threshold.

I talked to public health experts specifically about that mask mandate being dropped, and they said that 70% is far too low a percentage, a threshold, for facilities where people are working side by side. If social distancing is impossible, masks should always be required in a facility, closed facility, like this until we have a better hold over this.

What kind of response did you get from state officials when you asked about this?

I asked specifically, “Why now?” You know, delta [variant of the coronavirus] was was hitting Texas pretty hard in July when these mask mandates were dropped. And both the Gov. Greg Abbott and prison officials said that it is time for government mandates to end and for personal responsibility to kick in. They didn’t give me more of an explanation other than they consulted with their local health partners here in the state to make the decision. But you know, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], at the same time, was urging closed settings like nursing homes, like prisons, to continue requiring masks for everyone.

The vaccination rates among prison staff are below 50% at this point. There are actually a higher percentage of inmates who are vaccinated in our state jails and prisons than prison workers. And, you know, union representatives and families tell us that one of the reasons that these prison workers, especially correctional officers, aren’t getting the vaccine, is that there’s a lack of trust and respect between the employee and the employer – the state prison department. The prison agency spokesman did tell me that for vaccines, we have a ban on mandates here in Texas. [But] they are urging people to get vaccinated. He said that’s a personal choice, and sadly, that’s a choice that sometimes is a deadly one.

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