WASHINGTON STATE - According to the Washington State Department of Corrections since the pandemic began 5,932 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, that's about 40% of the inmate population in Washington state. 

And the outbreaks show no sign of slowing down. In the month of January alone the Washington Department of Correction reported over 1,300 new inmate positive cases spread across seven Washington state prisons. 

The data also shows at least 1,080 staff members have been hit by the virus. 

We spoke with The COVID Prison Project , an organization made up of public health scientists tracking COVID-19 data and policy in the prisons across the U.S., and they say this is a community issue. 

"Think about prisons as places that are especially risky, we have high levels of exposure and high risk of rapid transmission... So what is happening inside of prisons, the prison walls are not a barrier, disease can permeate into the community, and we are seeing that very clear path with staff in particular and community spread," said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, PhD and Co-founder of The COVID Prison Project.

Brinkley-Rubinstein also explains why public health leaders say vaccinating inmates should be a priority.

"If we look at the epidemiology of COVID-19, which is what we should be doing in the field of public health, we don't look at deservedness. We look at if we are going to give vaccines where are we going to have the most impact, and to understand that question, we say where have the biggest number of cases been. And it’s undeniably prisons and jails. And, so if we just look at the data we have to underscore the fact that prisons and jails ought to be prioritized," Brinkley-Rubinstein told NBC Right Now. 

NBC Right Now also reached out to the Washington Department of Corrections- they declined to be interviewed for this report.

However, WA DOC did provide a statement which reads in part:

"The Washington State Department of Corrections has prioritized the advice of healthcare professionals and relies on science to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and protect staff and those sentenced to its custody. We have regularly implemented recommendations from the CDC and Washington State Department of Health, since March, 2020. When facilities begin to see an increase in COVID-19 cases, efforts are immediately put into place to reduce the risk of further spread of COVID-19- by limiting the opportunities for potential contact between individuals and to separate healthy individuals from those who test positive for COVID-19". 

Meanwhile in Oregon, home to the oldest population of inmates in the country, the Oregon Department of Corrections reports about 26% percent of the prison population has been hit by the virus, and at least 42 people have died in custody due to the coronavirus.

However, Oregon state leaders are looking to change that, in a statement to NBC Right Now, Colette S. Peters, Director for Oregon's Department of Corrections writes:  

"The Department of Corrections received Judge Beckerman’s order to vaccinate all adults in state custody. This pandemic has been exceedingly difficult for those who live and work in our institutions, and we will continue to work hard to combat this virus. 

Operationally, we are prepared to offer and administer additional vaccines. We know vaccines will slow the spread of COVID-19 inside Oregon’s institutions for those in our care and custody, and in turn, protect our employees and Oregon communities.” -Colette S. Peters, Oregon DOC Director 

 For more information on The COVID Prison Project check out: Home - COVID Prison Project