March 25, 2021

Progress on vaccinations in PA prisons and jails
The pace of COVID-19 vaccinations is quickening, and soon all incarcerated people and corrections workers across Pennsylvania will become eligible for the shots.

The pace of COVID-19 vaccinations is quickening, and soon all incarcerated people and corrections workers across Pennsylvania will become eligible for the shots.

But for now, the pace of inoculating people who live and work in prisons varies dramatically across the state--despite the fact that these groups are among the most vulnerable and the most important for stopping massive outbreaks, like the one that’s infected 107 people at Lycoming County Prison in the past two months.

To date, 122 people in custody and 12 corrections workers in Pennsylvania have lost their lives to the virus. Our hearts go out to their families and loved ones.

Two counties lead the state

We recently began surveying every county jail in Pennsylvania about their progress giving COVID-19 vaccinations. The shots won’t become widely available to people living and working in correctional facilities until April, when Phase 1B of the state’s distribution plan is expected to begin. Even so, a number of jails have started vaccinating staff and people in custody:

  • Philadelphia and Susquehanna County have begun vaccinating people in jail custody.
  • They are also among the 12 county jails that told us they’ve already started getting their staff COVID-19 shots; four other county jails reported small numbers of staff getting the shots on their own.

Philadelphia’s efforts were not a surprise, since the city has its own distribution plan separate from the state and has been offering vaccines in its prisons since January. But this is the first report of vaccinations in Susquehanna County Correctional Facility, which has managed to inoculate 50-60% of people in custody. In Philadelphia, about 32% of incarcerated people and 37% of corrections workers have received at least their first shot.

The 12 county jails that have begun vaccinating staff are a geographically diverse group, from urban Allegheny County in the west to rural Bradford County in the northeast. The other counties include Adams, Butler, Centre, Crawford, Somerset, Susquehanna, Tioga, Venango, and Warren. Soon, we will visualize the vaccine data we’re tracking in a new map view on our COVID-19 landing page. Stay tuned.

We’re also keeping tabs on the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ progress immunizing people in state prisons. The department has already given vaccinations in three state prisons that incarcerate large numbers of elderly and medically vulnerable people, and reported high rates of acceptance by people in custody. On Monday, Secretary John Wetzel told the state senate that the DOC plans to administer vaccines in up to three more state prisons each week beginning in April, when Phase 1B begins.

Upcoming hurdles: corrections worker distrust, rural jail capacity to give shots

As supplies become widely available, the next challenge is getting people in prisons to agree to roll up their sleeves. Incarcerated people often mistrust prison medical providers and tend to be wary of vaccines. The $25 incentive the DOC is offering people in custody who get fully vaccinated may have persuaded some to put aside their doubts.

But recent reporting suggests that reaching corrections officers could prove to be a bigger hurdle. Doubts about the COVID-19 vaccine are widespread among corrections officers nationwide, and they have often expressed even more hesitancy than people in custody. The Pennsylvania DOC surveyed staff about their interest in the vaccine, and 64% said they would get the shot. But in a state senate hearing Monday, Secretary Wetzel said only one-third of DOC staff members who have been offered vaccines have gotten them.

Another challenge could be a lack of will to mount vaccination campaigns in some rural county jails. Three jails we called said they had not made plans to offer the vaccine when the state moves to 1B.

We once again call on all state and county officials to:

  • Offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all people in custody and staff as soon as they become available;
  • Implement weekly, rapid testing of all staff that come into contact with people in custody until they are vaccinated;    
  • Expand efforts to safely reduce the number of people in custody;
  • 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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