October 28, 2021

What the new COVID-19 booster approvals mean for incarcerated people.
People who live or work in prisons are now eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot with any of the three approved vaccines.

People who live or work in prisons are now eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot with any of the three approved vaccines. The CDC and the FDA approved booster doses of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines last week, after first approving boosters of the Pfizer shot a month ago.

Because of their increased risk from COVID-19, the CDC included incarcerated people and prison staff among the first groups eligible for booster doses.

Booster shots play an important role in protecting people in custody and correctional staff as coronavirus outbreaks continue to strike prisons and jails. People confined to prisons are over three times as likely to get infected and 2.5 times as likely to die from the disease, according to a recent study in the medical journal JAMA. The protection from initial vaccine doses also appears to have waned slightly over time, especially when it comes to preventing the coronavirus from spreading to vaccinated people.

Nicholas Scharff, a physician and former chief of clinical services for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, says he would recommend incarcerated people, correctional staff, and anyone else who is eligible for a booster get one.

"Boosters not only protect the person who gets the booster, but they also reduce his ability to incubate a lot of virus and transmit it, and thereby they protect the people around them,” Scharff says.

The CDC also endorsed the so-called “mix and match” approach, allowing people to get a booster with any of the three vaccines, regardless of which brand they were first vaccinated with. This could make it easier to access boosters in prisons and jails, which often have only offered one brand at a time.

Unclear timeline for booster shots in PA prisons and jails, though most people in DOC custody are eligible

The CDC’s guidelines mean that most people in custody in Pennsylvania state prisons are immediately eligible for a booster shot. The vast majority were vaccinated with the J&J shot beginning in April, and already meet the requirement that at least two months have passed since initial vaccination. The Department of Corrections told the Prison Society this week that it was planning to offer booster shots but did not say when it would start administering them.

In county jails, COVID-19 vaccines have historically been harder to access and vaccination rates have been low. The Prison Society reached out to PrimeCare Medical, which provides medical services to more than half of the county jails in Pennsylvania. PrimeCare said it plans to offer boosters as soon as possible, but did not give a definite date. The company said it will use electronic health records to determine which incarcerated people are eligible, and will continue to educate them on the benefits of getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Prison Society calls on all state and county officials to make COVID-19 booster shots available in prisons and jails.  We ask state and county officials to announce their plans for booster distribution by November 5th.

In addition, we continue to call on all state and county officials to:

  • Expand efforts to safely reduce the number of people in custody;
  • Continue to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all people in custody and staff in prisons and jails;
  • 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.

If you have questions about COVID-19 in Pennsylvania prisons, visit our COVID-19 landing page or email customerservice@prisonsociety.org.

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