The state put 22,000 inmates and correctional workers near the front of the line for coronavirus vaccinations, but early figures show some inmates and correctional facility employees are forgoing a first dose.
In several county jails across the state, only a small sliver of inmates and workers eligible for a voluntary vaccination have acted on the opportunity, with some expressing trepidation about the vaccine.
In Bristol County, about 9 percent of the approximately 700 prisoners and immigration detainees had volunteered to be vaccinated as of Thursday, when the sheriff’s office began administering doses to inmates, according to Jonathan Darling, a spokesman. Vaccination distribution began more than a week ago for workers, but only 23 percent of the staff signed up and received shots, he said.
“We’re hoping to see those numbers go up as people get it and report no side effects,” Darling said in an e-mail. “Inmates or staff can refuse it now but accept it later, so we’re thinking that as inmates and staff get it and report they feel fine that more will accept it.”
In Norfolk County, 19 percent of the approximately 370 inmates signed up to get vaccinated, according to an office spokesman. And in Berkshire County, 22 percent of the 136 inmates have agreed to be vaccinated, said Sheriff Thomas Bowler.
County sheriffs and prisoner advocates have cited misinformation, distrust of vaccinations, questions about safety and effectiveness, and the history of unethical research and medical practices targeting people of color as reasons given for declining the vaccine.
An inmate survey by the Middlesex sheriff’s office found that 60 percent of prisoners said they would not agree to vaccinations, though a third of those respondents said they would keep an open mind. A spokesman for the Suffolk sheriff’s office said about a third of the 932 inmates have agreed to be vaccinated so far.
Correctional facilities have reported several outbreaks of the virus since November, worrying health officials and prisoner rights advocates.
A MassINC poll from late November found that the majority of Massachusetts residents planned to get the when it was made available, but Black and Latino residents are more hesitant because of longstanding distrust of the government on health care issues. Republicans and regular churchgoers are also among those least eager to be first in line for a vaccine, partly due to skepticism over whether the vaccine has been thoroughly tested.
So far, state officials have also made the vaccine available to health care workers, patients at long-term care facilities, first responders, and people living in congregate settings. Massachusetts was among 14 states that went beyond federal guidelines in including prisoners in the first vaccination wave, even as fast-tracking inmates has faced some criticism.
Vaccine acceptance among prisoners and workers in Department of Correction facilities remains unclear. As of Thursday, 1,442 doses had been administered to inmates and 1,624 doses had been given to staff, but the agency hasn’t released figures showing how many people declined vaccines.
The process is ongoing, and the vaccine is available to all inmates and staff, though workers may also get the shot at a community site, the DOC said. All patients are observed for 15 to 30 minutes after vaccination to monitor for adverse reactions, and EpiPens and oxygen are available on site.
The most recent state vaccination report published on Thursday showed a total of 2,385 doses had been administered at all correctional facilities, including state and county facilities. The data release doesn’t indicate whether the vaccines went to workers or prisoners and also doesn’t specify where the shots were administered, how many people refused, or any demographic information.
Elizabeth Matos, executive director of the nonprofit Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said her office has received reports from inmates at MCI-Norfolk, a large prison operated the DOC, who said they were handed written materials about the vaccine and given approximately 30 minutes to review the information and complete a form indicating whether they would accept the vaccine.
The inmates complained that the DOC didn’t make staff available to answer questions about a range of issues including allergies, how the vaccine interacts with medications or preexisting medical conditions, she said.
“They were not given the opportunity to ask questions they had specific to the vaccine. That is concerning,” Matos said. “They have legitimate questions.”
In a statement, the DOC said its staff responds to inmates’ questions and noted that the agency is running ongoing education and awareness campaigns.
The virus has claimed the lives of two county inmates and 21 DOC prisoners, including two men who died of COVID-19 in November shortly after being granted medical parole and who are not included in the state’s official tally of correctional fatalities.
Thirteen of the DOC fatalities have occurred since November, the most recent deaths being a MCI-Norfolk prisoner who died on Monday and a prisoner at Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater who died last Friday, state figures show.
There are 412 correctional workers and inmates with active cases of COVID-19 and more than 6,160 staff and prisoners have tested positive for the virus since April, figures show.
In Worcester County, the sheriff’s office scheduled inmate vaccinations to begin on Friday with the administration of 20 doses, said Superintendent David Tuttle. About 180 workers have received their first shots. Tuttle said it’s unclear how many prisoners will ultimately take the vaccine.
“It’s changing every day,” he said. “I think once we start administering them and they see the other inmates not seeing side effects that will go a long way.”