The Oklahoma Department of Corrections expects to start administering COVID-19 vaccine doses next month, director Scott Crow said Wednesday during an agency board meeting. 

Every state-run and private prison in Oklahoma has provided corrections officials with a detailed vaccine distribution plan, Crow said. Priority will be given to prison medical personnel, followed by staff and inmates. Vaccination is optional for all three groups. 

Staff and residents in congregate living areas are listed in Phase 2E of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, behind older adults and K-12 teachers and support staff. Oklahoma entered phase 2 on Jan. 4. 

Crow said the state health department has not yet provided corrections officials with a vaccine allotment total, but expects his agency will receive more information soon.

“We have a large number of staff and an even larger number of inmates, but we will remain diligent in trying to get the supply we need to accomplish this as quickly as possible,” Crow told board members. 

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Last month the corrections department began surveying staff and inmates about their willingness to get vaccinated. Thus far, about 800 staff and 11,000 inmates have indicated interest in taking the vaccine, offender services director Millicent Newton-Embry said. On Tuesday, the corrections department housed 21,648 prisoners in state and private facilities. The agency has nearly 5,000 employees. 

While initial polling shows a widespread reluctance among staff to take the vaccine, Crow said the numbers may be skewed because employees can use the state’s online COVID-19 vaccine portal to schedule their own appointment. 

As reported by Oklahoma Watch earlier this month, some state inmates and staff are concerned about possible side effects and plan to refuse the vaccine. State health officials warn those who initially refuse the vaccine when it’s offered to their priority group will likely be left waiting if they later change their mind. 

Overcrowded U.S. prisons have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. As of Dec. 18, one in five prisoners nationwide had contracted COVID-19, according to data compiled by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, a rate four times greater than the general population.

In Oklahoma, more than 6,900 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and 27 have died. The state Medical Examiner’s office is investigating 18 additional deaths possibly related to COVID-19. 

More than 900 state corrections staff have tested positive for COVID-19. While the corrections department reported three staff deaths related to COVID-19 in late September, the agency no longer displays staff coronavirus deaths on its COVID-19 dashboard

Note: This story was updated to clarify the exact number of inmates housed in Department of Corrections custody.

Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss

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