SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in a box. (M-Foto via shutterstock)

Inmates appear to be choosing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 at a higher rate than staff, according to figures released by the state Department of Correction.

As of Wednesday, 3,147 inmates or 70% of those who have been offered the vaccine have agreed to the shots, said Karen Martucci, director of external affairs. Another 1,306 inmates have declined to be vaccinated, she said. Inmates who decline the vaccine must sign a release form indicating they did not want the shots.

Of the roughly 5,400 DOC employees, 2,537 or about 46% have been vaccinated at agency-sponsored clinics at the prisons, Martucci said. However, the figures do not include staff members who were vaccinated by their own health care providers or through the Vaccine Administration Management System. DOC employees are not required to report if they have been vaccinated, Martucci said. They are also not required to sign a release indicating that they don’t want the vaccine, she said.

The percentage of DOC employees who have been vaccinated is roughly the same as nursing home employees, according to the state Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe. 

“I think we’ve gotten up around 50%, which is not uncommon,” Geballe said last week. “We saw this in the nursing homes, first round for employee vaccinations, oftentimes we start out a little lower than we’d like to be and … with more opportunity to answer questions, for people to see their colleagues, their family members getting vaccinated, we expect those rates to go up over time.”

Union officials have been involved but are not necessarily pushing members to get inoculated, said Sean Howard, president of AFSCME Local 387 and a correction officer at Cheshire Correctional Institution.

“Correction officers are still getting vaccinated as we speak,” Howard said. “They are also talking to their doctors and getting it with the advice from their physicians.”

“I don’t believe it’s our job to sway our members one way or the other,” Howard said. “People need to consult sometimes with their physicians as some people have underlying issues due to COVID. We are always willing though to discuss issues with our members and get answers to any of their questions to help them make a decision they feel comfortable with.”

Howard has been vocal in seeking protections from the virus for union members and is now dealing with heart damage he suffered while battling COVID-19 in July. He is one of hundreds of DOC employees who have contracted the disease in the past year as the pandemic spread across the state. There are currently 39 employees out of work recovering from COVID-19, Martucci said.

As of Wednesday, 4,192 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and 19 have died since March 2020. Currently there are 44 inmates being treated for COVID-19 in the medical unit at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution and another 77 who have tested positive but are asymptomatic and are being quarantined at the prisons where they are normally housed, she said.

The numbers are down since the peak of a second wave of infections that stormed through the prisons a few months ago, she said.

The agency started by vaccinating inmates over the age of 75, and then those ages 65 to 74. Based on the DOC vaccine allocation, the agency has since moved to vaccinating particular units at various prisons rather than doing an entire prison at once, Martucci said.

The rationale is to prevent health care staff from being overwhelmed if a large number of inmates have symptoms after receiving the vaccine. Inmates who enter the system are tested for COVID-19 and quarantined for 14 days then tested again before they are placed in the general population, Martucci said. They are also tested before being transferred or released.

Overall, there have been about 9,000 inmates in the system on any given day in the past few weeks, she said.

Meanwhile, the agency will continue public health measures in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines including masking and social distancing for the foreseeable future, Martucci said. “Masks are still mandatory at every facility.” 

Employees are still required to be tested weekly for COVID-19, she said. Inmates are tested every other week with about 90% participation, Martucci said.

The agency has been waging an extensive education campaign for staff and inmates on the benefits of getting vaccinated, Martucci said. “The key, much like testing, is education,” Martucci said.

DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros is featured in a public service announcement on the agency’s website discussing the safety and efficacy of the vaccines along with a lieutenant who was quite ill after contracting COVID-19, Martucci said.

The agency also has provided inmates with posters and has had health care staff and leadership personally visit with inmates to allow them to ask questions, she said. The inmates have been receptive, she said.

“They are feeling it just like we are,” she said.