One area where it appears that vaccines are getting less traction is in prison. Nicole Lewis of The Marshall Project and Michael R. Sisak of the Associated Press report today on the difficulties of getting staff in America’s jails to take the Covid shots.
They report that in Massachusetts, more than half the people employed by the Department of Correction declined to be immunized. A statewide survey in California showed that half of all correction employees will wait to be vaccinated. In Rhode Island, prison staff have refused the vaccine at higher rates than the incarcerated, according to medical director Dr. Justin Berk. And in Iowa, early polling among employees showed a little more than half the staff said they’d get vaccinated.
Some correctional officers are refusing the vaccine because they fear both short- and long-term side effects of the immunizations. Others have embraced conspiracy theories about the vaccine.
Public health experts continue to worry about the prospect of controlling the pandemic both inside and outside. Infection rates in prisons are more than three times as high as in the general public. Prison staff helped accelerate outbreaks by refusing to wear masks, downplaying people’s symptoms, and haphazardly enforcing social distancing and hygiene protocols in confined, poorly ventilated spaces ripe for viral spread.
“People who work in prisons are an essential part of the equation that will lead to reduced disease and less chance of renewed explosive Covid-19 outbreaks in the future,” said Brie Williams, a correctional health expert at the University of California, San Francisco, or UCSF.
At FCI Miami, officers are constantly shuttling sick and elderly prisoners to the hospital. Kareen Troitino, the local corrections officer union president, said that as a result, a skeleton crew of staff is left to operate the prison. Unvaccinated staff only compound the problem as they run the risk of getting sick when outbreaks crop up in the prisons.
“A lot of employees get scared when they find out, ‘Oh, we had an outbreak in a unit, 150 inmates have Covid,”’ Troitino said. “Everybody calls in sick.”
Part of the resistance to the vaccine is widespread misinformation among correctional staff, said Brian Dawe, a former correctional officer and national director of One Voice United, a policy and advocacy group for officers. A majority of people in law enforcement lean right, Dawe said. “They get a lot of their information from the right-wing media outlets,” he said. “A lot of them believe you don’t have to wear masks. That it’s like the flu.” National polls have shown that Republicans without college degrees are the most resistant to the vaccine.
Guards’ refusal to be vaccinated has been a blessing for some incarcerated people. The vaccines have a short shelf life after being thawed out, so officials have offered the leftover vaccines to prisoners instead of letting them go to waste. Julia Ann Poff is incarcerated at FMC Carswell, a federal prison in Texas, received her first shot in mid-December, after several officers declined.
“I consider myself very blessed to have received it,” she wrote, using the prison’s email system. “I have lupus and a recent diagnosis of heart disease, so there was no way I could afford to let myself get (sick).”