(Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Covid cases have skyrocketed in the past two weeks among prisoners and staff at the Oregon Department of Corrections, leaving several state prisons short-staffed.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the corrections department has reported 274 people in state prisons with Covid, spiking from 12 on Dec. 3, state data showed.

To date, the department as of Tuesday afternoon has reported 4,183 people in custody testing positive for Covid since the start of the pandemic, up 334 since Dec. 3. Of those, 3,745 have recovered.

They’ve in total reported 44 deaths of people in prisons who tested positive for Covid and three deaths of employees as of Jan. 10, their website showed.

The corrections department has reported 59 active Covid cases among employees as of Tuesday afternoon, about 20 times more than on Dec. 3, when there were three.

Oregon prisons have been Covid hotbeds since the start of the pandemic, seeing some of the state’s largest outbreaks. Dozens of people in prisons who tested positive for Covid have died, and the state corrections department has come under scrutiny over whether officials have done enough to mitigate the spread.

Corrections department employees are working to recruit and hire new staff for open positions statewide, said spokeswoman Betty Bernt.

“Unfortunately, DOC has not escaped the statewide staffing shortage," Bernt said in an email.

All of the corrections department's prisons and Salem-area work locations are facing staffing shortages, the most acute being Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla and Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton.

The Oregon Health Authority on Jan. 5 reported outbreaks at five state prisons, including 56 total cases at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. An investigation started July 7, and the most recent case showed symptoms Dec. 20, its Covid Weekly Outbreak Report showed.

A total 1,301 employees have tested positive for Covid since the pandemic began, 103 of those since Dec. 3. Of those, 1,239 have recovered as of Tuesday afternoon.

"Our recent cases have been overall less serious than previous cases, with very few hospitalizations," Bernt said. "We are able to take care of their medical needs on-site."

The state department of corrections had 48 fewer employees Tuesday afternoon than it did Dec. 3, dropping from 4,460 to 4,412.

Bernt said that is partly due to the closure of Shutter Creek Correctional Institution in Coos Bay, and nurses in the corrections department's Health Services Division are both retiring and leaving for other employment. "We are experiencing some effects of the Omicron variant in general, with staff being out, and have some post-vaccine mandate separations," she said in an email.

Bernt said the corrections department doesn’t track the number of staff or people in custody quarantined at any given time.

She said the department works with labor organizations to help address mandatory overtime and allow staff from its Transport Unit to help with covering overtime work. They are also working to increase the number of employees on their recruitment team.

The corrections department has had varying operational impacts at its facilities since the start of the pandemic, including repeatedly canceling and restarting visitations, staggering activities to allow for social distancing in common areas, limiting access for volunteers and “non-critical visitors” to facilities and quarantining people who exposed or test positive for Covid, Bernt said.

Oregon State Penitentiary and Santiam Correctional Institution both paused visitations effective Jan. 11, the corrections department’s website said.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office in recent weeks has also seen an uptick in employee absences due to illness as the omicron surge has chipped at workforces across the state. 

Sgt. Jeremy Landers, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said all four divisions – enforcement, the Marion County Jail, operations and community corrections – have seen an uptick in employees having to quarantine with “absences due to illness.”

OHA’s Jan. 5 outbreak report showed 32 total cases at the Marion County Jail. An investigation started Sept. 5, and the most recent case showed symptoms Dec. 22.

Landers said the sheriff’s office hasn’t had to discontinue any services or make operational changes aside from bringing in additional employees on overtime to help maintain a full staff.

“We’ve been able to do that, but we have noticed the impact,” he said.

Landers said the sheriff’s office doesn’t have numbers available for Covid-positive cases among staff, and “it’s not something that we would look into or provide.”

“We are in the middle of what a traditional cold and flu season would be also,” he added.

Landers said the sheriff’s office has also had disruptions in getting supplies for the county jail like food, toilet paper and cleanings supplies from vendors. “We’ve been able to get everything we’ve needed, but we’ve had to put extra effort into racking down necessary supplies,” he said.

“We just have to make sure ... that all of the posts are covered to make sure that we can continue safe operation, and we've been able to do that. But we have noticed the impact,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Salem Police Department hasn’t had any recent staffing shortages, said, spokeswoman Lt. Debbie Aguilar.

“We’re able to fully staff all of our patrol shifts as well as our detectives,” Aguilar said.

She said they hope safety measures like wearing masks, maintaining 6-foot distance and staff quarantining if they have high-risk exposure will prevent staffing impacts from the omicron variant.

This story was updated with additional information from the Oregon Department of Corrections.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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