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A first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is administered at Baton Rouge General Medical Center's new dedicated vaccine clinic inside its Center for Health, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. BRG opened the new clinic on Monday of this week at 9001 Summa Ave., on its Bluebonnet campus. Combined with its other locations, the clinic will allow the hospital to vaccinate thousands of people each week.

Louisiana State Penitentiary's Camp J is preparing to once again isolate COVID-positive inmates as cases rise throughout the state's prison system because of the more-contagious delta variant. In the past week, the number of cases among inmates has gone from zero to nearly four dozen.

DOC spokesman Ken Pastorick said Tuesday the solitary confinement facility — which was closed in 2018 due to its aging infrastructure but reopened in March 2020 to house sick inmates — has proven effective at curbing the virus’ spread because “all inmates who were transferred there” during the start of the pandemic “recovered from COVID.”

Although the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections’ website, which is updated on Wednesdays, currently reports 26 active cases of COVID-19 among prison staff and none among inmates, Pastorick said the number of sick inmates shot up this week to 45, while cases among staff have risen to 36.

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Of those, 43 are concentrated at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, while one case each has been reported at the Allen Correctional Center in Allen Parish and the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.

Pastorick said the DOC does not track whether the positive cases occur in vaccinated or unvaccinated inmates and staff, although he noted that 52 percent of staff in Louisiana's state-run prisons have reported receiving the vaccine. 

Inside the state prison system, 68 percent of inmates are vaccinated.

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Louisiana's recent COVID spike, fueled by a coronavirus vaccination rate that is among the worst in the country, has prompted the state prison system to suspend prison visits and keep volunteers out of its eight facilities.

The state on Monday reported its highest number of new cases since the pandemic began, even though vaccines have been widely available since the spring. Health officials note that new infections are occurring largely among the unvaccinated.

Louisiana's vaccination rate is around 37 percent and its current infection rate is among the fastest-growing. Monday, the state reported 6,225 new confirmed cases.

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In a statement Tuesday, the prison system said visits and volunteering are off at least until Aug. 16, and it will consider extending those restrictions to a later date.

The Department of Corrections will continue to offer two free phone calls per week to ensure inmates have continued connection to family and friends during this event. Video calls are available, for a fee.

The prison system said it was also conducting temperature checks and questioning anyone entering the state's prisons, including staff and vendors.