shows a hand holidng a small vial of COVID-19 vaccine
Image courtesy: UNC Health

By Hannah Critchfield

North Carolina began vaccinating state prisoners Wednesday after its prison agency received its first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from the state health department.

Correctional staff who work with COVID-19-positive incarcerated people or in prison units with outbreaks, as well as the health care staff administering shots, are also receiving the vaccine.

Around 1,000 Moderna vaccines allocated for state prisons this week have arrived, according to a Department of Public Safety press release issued Wednesday morning. About 300 more vaccine doses are expected to arrive and be administered “within days.”

Yesterday’s rollout marks the first time incarcerated people in state custody have been offered inoculation for a virus that has decimated prisons across North Carolina, leaving 40 inmates dead and thousands infected.

Roughly one in five state prisoners has had COVID-19, according to a North Carolina Health News analysis, giving the institutions a death rate that’s not quite double that of the general public.

Some correctional staff had previously begun to get vaccinated through their local health departments, said Todd Ishee, commissioner of prisons at DPS, at a press conference last week.

Only state prisoners who are 75 or older are currently being offered the coronavirus vaccine due to limited availability, according to the press release. Staff who are 75 and older, even if they do not work with COVID-positive inmates, can also get inoculated.

“All of the facilities that are open are scheduled to receive it at this point,” said John Bull, DPS spokesperson, when asked which of North Carolina’s 55 prisons will be receiving the vaccine this week.

The rollout in North Carolina’s prisons lags behind some other health providers across the state available to non-incarcerated people, who can travel to local health departments where the vaccine is currently being offered to those 65 or older.

A little over half – 23 out of 40 – of the state prisoners who have died of coronavirus were 65 or older, according to press releases and death records obtained by NC Health News. Nine of them were 75 or older.

COVID-19 vaccines will be made available to younger prisoners and staff through the prison system as the prison receives more doses from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

“Vaccination opportunity will expand to age 65 or older based on vaccine availability,” Bull said in the press release announcement.

These first vaccines will be administered by prison health care staff, though “strike teams” with possible assistance from the state National Guard will help in coming weeks as more doses become available. The Guard is currently assisting with vaccinating staff in the Central Prison “region,” one of the four designated areas DPS has set up to receive initial doses of the vaccine.

From there, the COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed to all nearby prisons in the region.

Getting vaccinated is currently voluntary for both incarcerated people and staff members.

That could change, according to previous statements made by Ishee, who noted it would be a decision made in consultation with the state health department.

“But we are not there right now,” he said at a Jan. 14 press conference. “It is voluntary, and we really hope that our staff and our offenders will jump on board and get vaccinated.”

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Critchfield is NC Health News' Report for America corps member. Report for America is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered...

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