More than half of the employees in the Massachusetts Department of Correction have declined the state’s offer to get the COVID-19 vaccine at work, even as the virus has wreaked havoc across the prison system, infecting roughly 900 workers and killing 21 inmates.
The workers’ refusal stands in sharp contrast to the general population’s rush to get the vaccine, which so far has been restricted by the state to first responders, people in congregate settings, and those over the age of 75. Some people have waited hours in lines, crossed state borders for better chances, and delved into an emerging gray market in order to get access to the vaccine. But not prison workers.
“It’s so much lower than what we would want it to be,” said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, cofounder of The COVID Prison Project, a group of public-health scientists that compile and study virus data from correctional facilities. “It’s even more harmful given that they work in congregate settings where there are lots of people at disproportionate risk of suffering severely and dying of COVID.”
The state’s prison inmates have been significantly more open to the shot. About 69 percent of the roughly 6,200 inmates offered inoculation have received an initial dose of the Moderna vaccine, which the state began providing to most inmates and correctional workers on Jan. 18.
The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, which represents more than more than 3,000 DOC employees, said the decision to vaccinate, ultimately, is up to the worker.
“We encourage our membership to get vaccinated, but also recognize vaccination is an individual right and decision, and should never be mandated or forced upon our membership,” the board said in a statement.
The Department of Correction said its refusal figures don’t tell the whole story because the count includes workers who opted to get their shots at off-site facilities and workers with medical contraindications who declined inoculation for health reasons.
It was unclear whether the DOC was tracking those figures, and if so, how. The agency would only say that off-site vaccination information “is confidential to the employee.”
“DOC will continue to offer the vaccine until every inmate and staff member who chooses to be vaccinated is vaccinated, including those who have changed their minds after previously refusing,” the agency said.
A MassINC poll from late November found that Black and Latino residents are more hesitant to sign up for the vaccine 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.
Law enforcement officials 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.
Other prison systems across the country have reported a tepid response from workers who were offered the vaccine. In California, a corrections official told state lawmakers that fewer than half of its workers had been vaccinated as of the end of January.
The situation is similar in Iowa, where nearly half of the state’s prison workers have refused the vaccine, according to Iowa Capital Dispatch.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker went beyond federal health guidelines by prioritizing correctional workers and inmates for early COVID-19 shots, which are voluntary.
The divide in vaccine acceptance among prisoners and staff has become an issue in a class-action lawsuit that seeks to reduce the prison population to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In a court filing, attorneys at Prisoners’ Legal Services, which represents inmates in the lawsuit, said the “risk of spread between unvaccinated staff and prisoners remains.”
“It is concerning that such a high number of staff has refused the vaccine to date,” the group’s executive director, Elizabeth Matos, said in a statement. “We are encouraged by the higher numbers of those incarcerated who have taken the vaccine. But the significantly low uptake, especially for staff who are bringing the virus in, means that there will continue to be a very significant threat of the coronavirus spreading and causing sickness and death in these congregate settings.”
About 3,000 DOC inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, including 95 inmates who have active cases of the virus as of Wednesday, figures show.
In January, the DOC offered good time credits to inmates who completed vaccine education and received the vaccine. The offer, however, was rescinded earlier this month after the Baker administration said the memorandum wasn’t consistent with its policies regarding reduced prison terms, according to Prisoners’ Legal Services.
The vaccination refusal rate among workers in at least one county jail also appears high. The Bristol County sheriff’s office has reported more than 70 percent of employees declined the vaccine, figures show.
The refusal rates at other county facilities are less clear because two sheriffs aren’t tracking refusals and four other sheriffs have yet to report any data to a special master, who was appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court to track COVID-19 in the state’s correctional system.