With New York City’s COVID-19 positivity rate now at more than 9 percent, there are growing concerns about how to protect those incarcerated in city jails and the staffers who work among them.

On Tuesday, the city’s Correctional Health Services reported there were 48 patients with active infections out of a total of just over 5,000 detainees. More than a hundred staffers have been infected since late November. These numbers are nowhere near last spring’s surge, when hundreds of inmates and more than 1,400 staffers were sickened; about a dozen people from both groups, combined, died of COVID-19.

Mayor de Blasio announced on Wednesday that some city police and correction officers can now get vaccinated. Benny Boscio, president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, welcomed the news by citing the virus’s heavy toll on his members, “who continue to work at the epicenter of the epicenter of the pandemic in New York City.”

On the medical side of jails, Correctional Health Services said it received its first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine and began vaccinating its staff last week. It is also planning to vaccinate the highest-risk patients in custody after winning state approval. Healthcare workers and residents in congregate settings other than jails and prisons were already receiving their first doses.

But vaccines are taking a long time to roll out, and Robert Cohen, a doctor and member of the city’s Board of Correction, said everyone who’s incarcerated should also be vaccinated.

“They cannot protect themselves,” he explained. “Currently they cannot protect themselves from infected officers who are coming in and out every day and have not yet been vaccinated.”

It’s not clear when the state will give the green light for jails and prisons to vaccinate everyone.

In the meantime, with warnings that this second wave will only worsen, public defenders and others are urging the city’s Department of Correction to reduce density and make testing more available to staffers and inmates.

“There is substantial overcrowding and there has been throughout the epidemic,” said Cohen.

The Department of Correction kept most dormitory housing areas at less than 50 percent capacity last spring. But Cohen said that was too crowded for such a contagious disease and things have only gotten worse. By Christmas, he said more than a third of the jail population was housed in dorms that were more than 50 percent capacity.

“Right now you’d have to rehouse more than 800 people to get to dormitories that are less than 50 percent capacity,” he explained. “And there are many, many people in dormitories over 75 percent capacity.”

He said he visited Rikers in November and saw beds that are less than three feet apart from each other, conditions that are not allowed in restaurants or schools where people are encouraged to stay six feet apart.

The Department of Corrections website lists numerous steps for cleaning and screening in the jails but makes no guarantees on social distancing. “Where possible in dormitory housing units, DOC is ensuring there is an empty bed in between people in custody,” it states.

Peter Thorne, DOC’s deputy commissioner for public information, said the department “will continue to adapt to the challenges created by the pandemic as necessary.” He also noted that “the department’s average positivity rate for people in custody remains lower than the citywide average.”

Correctional Health Services tests everyone admitted to the city jails. Those who are symptomatic are sent to a separate facility. But there is no routine testing of detainees or staffers, unlike in nursing homes—which are also congregate settings, and require staffers to be tested twice a week.

“The screening process to enter facilities relies on a staff member exhibiting symptoms, and testing for staff is entirely voluntary,” said Kayla Simpson, staff attorney on the Prisoners' Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.

“What we now know about the prevalence of asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission of COVID-19, taken with the reality that thousands of staff enter and exit DOC facilities daily, means that this strategy creates a risk of infection entering the jail system every single day,” she added.

The Department of Correction says staff members are screened for symptoms each day and those who answer yes to specific questions or who have a fever are advised to follow the recommended health department protocols for seeking medical attention. It also strongly encourages staffers to get tested regularly, which they can do for free at Rikers Island.

Public defenders claim correction officers do not always wear their masks. They also say it is not easy enough for detainees to get tested. Kelsey DeAvila, project director for jail services at Brooklyn Defender Services, said her clients are “not being provided with one or their requests are being ignored.”

Correctional Health Services said tests are offered following potential exposure, for disease surveillance or at a patient’s request.

But Ann Matthews, managing director of the criminal defense practice at Bronx Defenders, said those in jail still do not have any control over their surroundings and “are at the mercy of others for basic PPE and cleaning products.”

This is why she is among those calling on the city and prosecutors to release more people from Rikers, as they did last spring. The jail population plunged to less than 4,000 people in June, after about 1,400 people were released to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. A new bail reform law had also just taken effect. But the jail population has been going up since then, even though it is still well below the 7,000 it was in late 2019.

Colby Hamilton, a spokesman for the Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice, said the city “continues to work with our justice system partners to identify high-priority cases that face the greatest threat from the pandemic” while in custody.

“When those cases are identified and all the parties agree they can safely serve the remainder of their sentences at home under supervision, we continue to make it a priority to do so.”

However, there are only 136 people in the jail serving city sentences (defined as less than a year)—not enough to make much of a dent in the jail population. Back in March, before the pandemic hit, 553 people were serving city sentences.

By contrast, two thirds of those in jail now are accused of violent felony offenses. With killings and shootings at their highest numbers in more than a decade, law enforcement sources say prosecutors and judges are less likely to release these detainees now than they were last spring.

Inmates serving sentences have been asking for early release since the pandemic started, at the city, state and federal level. Justin Volpe, the former NYPD officer convicted of assaulting Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, just asked a federal judge for early release due to the coronavirus.

A spokeswoman for Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz said her office continues to review new requests for release “to protect the health of inmates, the Corrections Department workforce, and the community at large without jeopardizing public safety.”

The Manhattan and Brooklyn DA’s offices also said they continue to review cases for potential release, as they have since last spring.