About two-thirds of Oklahoma prison workers and just under half of the inmates have opted not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine from the state Department of Corrections, a sign that vaccine hesitancy remains high and some facilities may not reach the immunity threshold necessary to prevent future outbreaks.
In a Wednesday Board meeting, corrections director Scott Crow said that the agency expects to distribute vaccine doses to 1,500 corrections staff and 12,000 prisoners through the end of April. The corrections department employs about 4,500 and houses just under 22,000 inmates.
Prison medical staff began vaccinating corrections workers in late January, while inmates have been eligible to receive the vaccine since March 8.
Corrections department spokesman Justin Wolf said the staff vaccination total does not include employees who decided to get inoculated at off-site pharmacies or vaccine pods. Wolf said the agency has encouraged its staff to get vaccinated wherever it’s available and most convenient, but it cannot compel staff to provide proof of off-site vaccination.
Most state corrections systems are not mandating the vaccine for staff or inmates. Some states have used incentives, like reinstating in-person visitation if a certain percentage of prisoners get vaccinated, as a way to encourage vaccination.
Some of Oklahoma’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks have spread from state prisons, where many inmates live in dormitory-style housing units not conducive to social distancing. When an outbreak hit the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft in early September, Muskogee County ranked first among U.S. metropolitan areas with the most new COVID-19 cases.
Since April, more than 1,000 staff and 7,300 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. At least 44 prisoners have died.
At least 15 states, including Oklahoma, have prioritized vaccination for corrections staff ahead of inmates, arguing that they may introduce the virus to both inmate populations and nearby communities. But prison workers nationwide are showing resistance to the vaccine. In North Carolina, 65% of prison staff said in a February survey that they would not be getting vaccinated. A group of Nevada corrections officers told a legislative committee in December that they would rather quit than get inoculated.
The problem isn’t unique to prisons. Police officers, firefighters and emergency responders in several states have rejected the vaccine at a greater rate than the general public. Polling indicates that Republicans without college degrees, a group often drawn to law enforcement and corrections work, are among the most likely to decline vaccination. Experts say misinformation and conspiracy theories about the vaccine could be contributing to the hesitancy.
For inmates, mistrust of prison medical staff and a history of medical experimentation on prisoners has caused some to be skeptical. Because inmates don’t have the same access to information as the general public, advocates say educational outreach to incarcerated populations about the vaccine is critical.
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Speaking on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation, an inmate at the Dick Conner Correctional Facility in Hominy said he’s talked to several guards and prisoners who reject the idea of getting vaccinated. According to the inmate, one guard said that he believed there could be a “tracking device” in the vaccine and there was no way he could get it. The inmate, who said he previously tested positive for COVID-19, says he decided to get the vaccine because of new variants spreading through the U.S.
Judy Worsham Fox, a moderator of a Facebook group for Oklahoma inmate family members, said she has heard similar stories of conspiracy theories spreading among staff and inmates. Among them: the vaccine is the “mark of the beast,” a reference to a New Testament passage foreshadowing that the Antichrist will test Christians by asking them to put a mark on their body.
Worsham Fox said her son Michael, an inmate at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, received his first dose of the vaccine last week.
“He believes in science.” she said. “He’s been far from hesitant.”
Wolf said the agency has worked to educate inmates and staff on the science behind the vaccine and the importance of getting vaccinated. He declined to comment on if corrections officials had encountered any widespread vaccine hesitancy among staff.
While some corrections unions in other states have urged their members to get vaccinated, Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, an independent statewide association for Department of Corrections employees, has promised to protect employees who don’t get the shot.
Bobby Cleveland, the group’s executive director, said he expects that more than half of state corrections staff won’t get vaccinated.
“They’re very apprehensive about it,” Cleveland said. “I got my shot, but we feel like we don’t know anything about the side effects at this time.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccinated individuals can expect mild side effects for a few days, including pain around the arm where the dose was administered, fatigue and fever. With the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, side effects are generally more severe after the second dose. Serious side effects, including allergic reactions, are very rare for all three vaccines.
In addition to reducing cases and deaths, a successful vaccination process could allow the return of family visitation and in-person classes.
A New Hope For Inmates
COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma prisons peaked in late August and September, when outbreaks spread through two minimum-security facilities.
More than 700 women at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility, a minimum-security women’s prison in Taft, were infected in late August and early September. Two died. One middle-aged prisoner who died would have been eligible for release in May 2021.
A few weeks later, more than 80% of the population at the William S. Key tested positive for the coronavirus. An inmate housed at the prison during the outbreak said staff regularly ignored mask and social distancing protocols, and dozens of inmates were transferred to the facility without first being tested for COVID-19.
Following state trends, case numbers in prisons have dropped since early February, and some parts of prison life are returning to normal. The corrections department is allowing family visitation, which has been suspended indefinitely since mid-September due, to return with certain restrictions on April 1.
“We recognize this is a potential threat to our population, but we believe the need for visitation is probably greater at this time,” Crow said on Wednesday. “We’ll monitor this very closely, and if we see an influx of positive cases we will immediately cancel or restrict visitation.”
Outbreaks May Continue
At least 60 to 80% of a population needs to be vaccinated or infected in order to achieve herd immunity, said Dale Bratzler, chief COVID-19 officer for the University of Oklahoma.
Bratzler said it’s likely that state prisons impacted by large-scale outbreaks in the fall and winter have already achieved some form of natural immunity, but inmates who tested positive in August or September could soon be at risk for re-infection.
“Somebody that has previously had COVID-19, at least with those strains of the virus, probably have reasonably long protection,” Bratzler said. “We don’t know how long yet, but we’re reasonably comfortable that it’s at least six months.”
Though widespread vaccinations should allow life to slowly return to normal in the coming months, Bratzler said it’s likely that COVID-19 will become endemic, with isolated cases and outbreaks possible among unvaccinated populations.
“If you had a correctional facility with staff and prisoners who have refused vaccine, you could see some outbreaks in that setting,” Bratzler said.
Prisons aren’t the only places at risk, as correctional facility outbreaks often spread to surrounding communities. A July 2020 Pew Research Center study found that outbreaks in the nation’s largest county jails could lead to hundreds of thousands of cases on the outside.
In one Oklahoma prison, 82% of inmates tested positive for COVID-19. One of them was Robert Lavern.
Could Incentives Work?
Most correctional health experts recommend against vaccine mandates, saying it raises ethical questions about prisoners’ medical rights. In lieu of mandates or penalties, many states are turning to incentives to promote vaccination.
Pennsylvania is offering $25 to inmates who get vaccinated, while Virginia is giving out care packages full of snacks and personal care items. In North Carolina, inmates who opt into vaccination are granted five days off their sentence.
Other states are tying the return of in-person visitation and other programs to how much of a facility’s inmate population has been vaccinated. For example, visitation may resume in North Dakota prisons if 70% of an inmate population is vaccinated.. By late February, more than 70% of inmates had received at least one dose.
Incentives may also work for staff. The Vera Institute, a nonprofit criminal justice research and advocacy group, recommends that corrections departments offer special paid leave for vaccinated staff that may experience side effects.
Wolf said prison staff may use their regular sick leave to get vaccinated off-site or if they experience vaccination side effects, but there’s currently no special leave program in place. He also said there aren’t plans to provide vaccine incentives to inmates.
Cleveland said special paid leave could encourage more staff members to get vaccinated, but it likely isn’t feasible because many state prisons are short-staffed.
“That would be ideal, but you have to understand that DOC doesn’t always put staff first,” he said. “That’s why we have to introduce a bill to get a 15-minute break.”
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