April 15, 2021

Update on prison vaccinations: new tracking map and the J&J “pause”
We have some important updates on COVID-19 vaccinations to share this week, including the launch of our new map tracking where prison vaccinations have begun in Pennsylvania.

We have some important updates on COVID-19 vaccinations to share this week, including the launch of our new map tracking where prison vaccinations have begun in Pennsylvania. But first, we want to acknowledge the mounting death toll in prisons as coronavirus infections climb again in Pennsylvania and nationwide.

The pandemic is not over. To date in Pennsylvania, 141 people in custody and 15 correctional employees at prisons and jails have lost their lives to COVID-19. This includes 22 more deaths the Department of Corrections has reported since the last week of March. Our hearts go out to the family, friends and loved ones grieving these losses.

See where prison vaccinations have begun in PA

All people living in prisons and jails and all correctional employees in Pennsylvania are now eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, but it still falls upon the prisons and jails to obtain supplies and administer the vaccines. Our new map view offers the first statewide look at where prisons have begun giving shots, based on our recently completed survey of county jails. Hovering your cursor over each county shows additional detail on whether vaccines have been given to staff, people in custody, or both. We will continue to update the map as more counties begin vaccination efforts.

Impact of the J&J pause on DOC vaccinations

All Pennsylvania State Correctional Institutions (SCIs) began giving shots to staff and people in custody last week, so they are not visualized on our new map view. But on Tuesday, the Department of Corrections put vaccinations on hold after the federal government called for a “pause” on using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the one-dose shot which the DOC had deployed to all state prisons. The DOC said it would suspend administration of the J&J vaccine for at least seven days while the CDC and FDA investigate blood clots developed by six women among the more than 6.8 million people who have received the shot. The federal agencies issued the guidance “out of an abundance of caution” and noted the clots “appear to be extremely rare.”

Fortunately, the DOC had already made significant progress vaccinating people in custody when the pause went into effect. More than half of people residing in state prisons have received the shots. Approximately 17,427 incarcerated people and 1,891 staff members have received the J&J vaccine, the department says, of whom 89 experienced some kind of adverse reaction. The DOC has also administered the Moderna vaccine in a few prisons that became eligible for shots ahead of the rest, and those vaccinations will continue. The department has given the Moderna vaccine to approximately 2,869 incarcerated people and 617 staff members, of whom 18 reported adverse reactions. In a memo to everyone incarcerated in state prisons, Secretary Wetzel advised anyone experiencing “severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath” within three weeks of getting the J&J vaccine to notify a nurse or staff member, following the CDC’s guidance. He also acknowledged the death of one incarcerated person at SCI Phoenix who had received the J&J vaccine, while emphasizing that the man had underlying health conditions and the cause of his death has not been established.

While the pause on the J&J vaccine is in effect, the Prison Society calls on all state and county officials to continue to offer other approved vaccinations to all people in custody and staff. In addition, we continue to urge them to:

  • Expand efforts to safely reduce the number of people in custody;
  • Implement weekly, rapid testing of all staff that come into contact with people in custody until they are vaccinated;    
  • Require that every county publicly report prison testing results and virus-related deaths in custody;
  • Test and quarantine every new person entering custody; and
  • Eliminate the medical co-pay for accessing health care while in custody.

Sky Blue Heart
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