Nearly every inmate at Alaska’s largest prison has contracted COVID-19, according to data provided by the state Department of Corrections.
While few cases are still considered active, the high number of infections underscores the difficulties of containing the virus in tight congregate living situations, where it remains challenging to follow basic health guidelines designed to mitigate the spread.
On Tuesday, corrections spokeswoman Sarah Gallagher estimated that 1,115 inmates out of a total 1,236 inmates at Goose Creek Correctional Center in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough had tested positive for the virus since the first case was reported in the medium-security facility in November.
“To date, 1,271 tests have been recorded at GCCC, though this figure may be slightly increased due to the fact that DOC has performed both antigen and PCR tests, which may have resulted in an offender’s positive test being counted twice,” Gallagher explained over email. “We believe roughly 1,115 offenders have tested positive at Goose Creek to date.”
Gallagher said only 112 COVID-19 cases were considered to be active in the prison as of Monday.
Throughout all Alaska prisons, 1,966 inmates — representing more than 40% of the total inmate population — have contracted COVID-19, largely from transmission within the facilities. Gallagher said 192 people tested positive for the virus upon arrival at correctional facilities and another 1,774 people contracted the virus in correctional centers’ general population.
As the first shipments of the vaccine arrived in Alaska two weeks ago, officials questioned when and where inmates should fall in the prioritization for vaccination. Complicating the debate is the fact that many incarcerated people in Alaska are pretrial, which means they have been charged with a crime but not convicted.
Gallagher said Tuesday that it remained unclear when general population inmates would be vaccinated, but that eight inmates who live in the infirmaries at either Goose Creek or the Anchorage Correctional Complex because of medical conditions have since been vaccinated. Forty-six staff members have received the vaccine, she said.
The corrections department ended in-person visitations and implemented other safety protocols early on in the pandemic in hopes of evading the virus’ grip. The virus first entered corrections departments in April, when staff members at Anchorage’s McLaughlin Youth Center and Juneau’s Lemon Creek Correctional Center tested positive.
Throughout the country, prisons have remained a hotspot for infections. Roughly one in every five prisoners in America have contracted the virus, according to data compiled by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization focused on criminal justice reporting. By mid-December, American prisons had reported at least 276,235 COVID-19 cases, the organization reported. At least 1,738 of the people infected have died.