One-third of Michigan prisoners are vaccinated, but staff numbers don't tell whole story
Vaccines are becoming more widely available in Michigan prisons after a year in which the novel coronavirus tore through correctional facilities across the state, sickening thousands of prisoners and staff.
So far, about 11,000 state prisoners — a third of the population — have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections. But it's not clear how many of the roughly 9,000 people who work inside prisons have been inoculated.
About 1,300 employees have been vaccinated at clinics hosted by MDOC. That number isn't complete because the department does not track prison workers who have opted to get the shot on their own from a local health department, clinic or pharmacy. Vaccinations are not mandatory for prisoners or staff, and employees aren’t required to report their vaccination status to the department.
If an early survey is any indication, staff are less likely than prisoners to get the vaccine. A department spokesman said 54% of employees who responded to an internal survey by early January said they would definitely or probably take the vaccine, compared, with 63% of prisoners who responded.
Corrections employees refusing vaccines at high rates appears to be a national trend, according to recent reporting by the Marshall Project and the Associated Press. That concerns public health experts, who say prison staff are among the highest risk for exposure and are often the vectors for bringing the virus from communities into facilities.
“We not only want staff to get vaccinated for their own health but also for the health of people who reside in facilities,” Dr. Jaimie Meyer, an infectious disease physician and associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine, told the Free Press.
'Boils down to personal choice'
All prison staff across the state have been offered the vaccine, according to MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz.
The department began offering the vaccine to prisoners in line with the state's guidance for priority groups, the same eligibility that was applied to the general public. Shots were first offered to prisoners 65 and older. On March 8, the department started offering doses to prisoners age 50 and up, beginning with those who have underlying medical conditions. Remaining doses were given to people under 50, based on their age and any medical conditions.
At five facilities, the entire prisoner populations have had a chance to get vaccinated.
Anecdotes suggest that corrections employees and prisoners who are declining the vaccine are skeptical for similar reasons. Among both groups are individuals who don’t trust the government or prison administration, people who think the vaccines were developed and rolled out too quickly and others who are fundamentally opposed to vaccinations.
Additionally, some prisoners are concerned that they won't receive proper medical care if they suffer a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine.
Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization representing 6,000 corrections officers, said the union hasn’t taken a position on COVID-19 vaccinations. There's a mix of opinions among the union's membership. There are corrections officers who took the vaccine as soon as it was offered to them, officers who say they will not take it, and people in the middle who have reservations and are “kind of waiting to see what happens with it,” he said.
Osborn said MDOC has been forthcoming in notifying staff about vaccine availability and has administered doses with the National Guard's assistance.
“I can’t say they haven’t done their due diligence,” Osborn said of the department. “It still boils down to personal choice of what folks want to do with it.”
As of Friday, 3,742 department employees across the state had tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. A factor slowing down vaccination rates may be the belief among some people that they don’t need the vaccine because they’ve already contracted the virus, Osborn said.
Meyer, the infectious disease physician, said that would be a “false assumption.”
“The degree of immunity that they develop from natural infection is really variable and we don’t think it lasts as long. It’s just not as robust a protection,” she said. “That would be a mistake to think that just because you got infected once, you can’t get infected again.”
Experts have suggested varying estimates for the percentage of the population that will need to be protected to achieve herd immunity, with figures ranging from 70% to 90%.
Complicating the fight against COVID-19 is the presence of new, faster spreading virus variants. MDOC prisoners and staff accounted for 446 of the state’s 756 known cases of the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant as of Thursday. Michigan ranks second nationwide for confirmed cases.
The prison system's B.1.1.7 variant cases began with an outbreak first detected at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia in February. An employee was the first confirmed case, and now prisoners make up the majority of MDOC's variant infections with 420 cases.
Overall, 25,893 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, and 139 have died. Four MDOC employees have died.
Gautz said that during clinics to distribute the vaccine to staff, available doses have at times outnumbered the employees who have shown up to be vaccinated. Bellamy Creek's warden wrote to a health department official that they were “beating the bushes” to find people to sign up for a clinic planned for employees of all four Ionia prisons in early February, with fewer than half of 500 slots filled, according to emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from the Documenting COVID-19 project at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University. The following week, some staff asked to be vaccinated after the first employee tested positive for the B.1.1.7 variant, Gautz said.
Gautz said MDOC is trying to encourage staff to take the vaccine with efforts that include PSA-type messages about staff who have been inoculated.
"We have videos that display in the lobby areas, in their break areas, as well as encouraging prisoners on the prisoner (TV) channel," he said.
Educational materials about the vaccine are also given to prisoners in their housing unit and over email, he said.
Dr. John Hart, a senior researcher with the Vera Institute of Justice's Restoring Promise initiative, said prison systems are up against an "undercurrent of distrust" from prisoners and staff because of the handling of the pandemic. People who live and work in prisons should be tapped to help educate their peers in vaccine rollouts to increase buy-in, he said.
With vaccine hesitancy is the historical backdrop of medical experimentation and exploitation of Black people. Hart said it's important that messaging about vaccines be disseminated by and for people of color.
"They need to get creative," he said of prison systems. "They need to start educating. They need to be active in debunking things. They need to start disseminating messages with other voices."
'Guys all around me have gotten sick'
A number of corrections departments across the country are offering incentives for prisoners to take the vaccine.
Some public health experts question the ethics of paying people to get vaccinated.
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, whose department is paying prisoners $25 to take the vaccine, said these are nuanced decisions and "we're not living in an ideal world. We're living in a world where people are dying from this disease." He said about 75% of prisoners have taken the vaccine at three facilities where shots have been offered so far.
"I think COVID, to me, has pointed out something that I've known forever but really never say out loud, and that's, frankly, that the fate and health of our staff and incarcerated individuals is inextricably linked," Wetzel said during a webinar hosted by Yale University's SEICHE Center for Health and Justice. "... Our goal is that everyone volunteers to get the vaccine. Whatever we gotta do to convince them or whatever, that's what we have to do."
Earlier in Michigan's vaccine rollout, MDOC offered doses to all prisoners at Lakeland Correctional Facility, a prison in Coldwater that houses some of the state's most vulnerable and elderly individuals. As of March 5, 63% of Lakeland's population had received at least one shot.
"I have taken two shots. It was important to me as guys all around me have gotten sick and some in the unit I'm in have died," Wayne Duff, a 68-year-old prisoner at Lakeland, said in a message through the prison's email system.
Duff said he contracted the virus in April and is still experiencing what he thinks are long-term symptoms, like shortness of breath and memory issues.
He said it's hard to avoid some prisoners and staff who wear their masks incorrectly, and that concerns him.
"Of course, I still think about catching it again," he said.
Angie Jackson covers the challenges of formerly incarcerated citizens as a corps member with Report for America. Her work is supported by The GroundTruth Project and the Hudson-Webber Foundation. Click here to make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work. Become a Free Press subscriber.