By Elizabeth Thompson

As the most recent Delta variant wave of the coronavirus pandemic appears to be tapering off in most of North Carolina, carceral facilities are still experiencing outbreaks.

At least three people in different county jails have died due to the coronavirus in the past month, according to weekly outbreak reports from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. 

Two of those deaths were of jail staff members, according to the reports.

Gov. Roy Cooper has required staff at the state-run prisons to either provide proof of vaccination or undergo weekly testing in order to encourage staff vaccinations as part of an executive order.

But for the state’s close to 100 county-run jails, also called detention centers, there is no such protocol. Unlike the state-run prisons, vaccination rates among staff and those incarcerated in North Carolina’s county jails remain largely unknown. A recent analysis by the website Officer Down Memorial Page, notes that COVID-19 has been the leading cause of death for law enforcement since 2020. 

Lack of oversight in jails

Unlike prisons, which see a more static population, jails are deeply entwined with the community, said John Hart, the associate director of partnerships and community network at the Vera Institute of Justice’s Restoring Promise team, which advocates for equity for incarcerated people.

People can be jailed from anywhere from a couple of hours to months or longer. Many people in jails have not been convicted of a crime — in 2015, pretrial detainees made up 82 percent of North Carolina’s jail population.

“You have people coming in and out more rapidly than prison,” Hart said. “These are people going into the community, into their families and then coming back out.”

North Carolina’s prison system answers to the state, but county jails fall under the jurisdiction of individual sheriffs, which means different jails may follow different policies. The same is true when it comes to vaccination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention especially recommends that staff at correctional and detention facilities get vaccinated against COVID-19 since they are at higher risk of exposure in the workplace.

“Outbreaks in correctional and detention facilities are often challenging to control given the difficulty to physically distance, limited space for isolation or quarantine, and limited testing and personal protective equipment resources,” the CDC says in its recommendation. “COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional and detention facilities might also lead to community transmission outside of the facility.”

However, these recommendations are not enforceable.

The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association has a large, bright red link on its website’s homepage titled “COVID-19 Information Provided to Sheriffs,” but the association itself does not have any medical staff, said spokesperson Eddie Caldwell. All the guidance for COVID-19 protocols for sheriffs comes directly from the CDC website. 

When asked if the association has done an information campaign on vaccinations, Caldwell said “there’s public information campaigns on vaccinations all over the place.” He gave Cooper’s public vaccine advocacy as an example.

“There’s probably not anybody that is not aware that vaccines are widely available,” Caldwell said.

Jails are required by state law to have a medical plan approved by their county’s medical director and board of commissioners, Caldwell said.

“Every jail is responsible for providing medical care to inmates, pursuant to that medical plan,” Caldwell said. “And so that’s where a jail and the sheriff get their direction and guidance for medical issues.”

Transylvania County Detention Center, where one staff member, Sgt. Donald Ramey, contracted COVID-19 and later died, offers vaccinations to both staff and those incarcerated at the jail, said Capt. Jeremy Queen in an email. 

Staff are not required to be vaccinated, he noted.

Madison County Detention Center, where one detainee died of COVID-19, and Vance County Detention Center, where one staff member died of COVID-19, according to the NCDHHS outbreak report, did not respond to requests for comment from NC Health News.

In the three counties where people died from COVID-19 in jails, the percentage of fully vaccinated people hovered around 51 to 53 percent, according to the NCDHHS vaccination dashboard. About 55 percent of North Carolina’s population is fully vaccinated.

Vaccine requirement for jail staff?

In addition to incarcerated people, staff also go in and out of detention centers. That means if any person going through the revolving door of their county jail is sick with COVID-19, there is a chance they could spread it to others there.

It’s for this reason that some public health experts called on President Joe Biden to require jail and prison employees to get vaccinated in an opinion piece in The Atlantic, after Biden announced that nursing homes would be required to vaccinate their employees against COVID-19.

“Every public employee who is charged with protecting vulnerable populations should absolutely be mandated to get a vaccine in order to keep their job,” said Eric Reinhart, one of the article’s authors, in an interview with NC Health News. “It is part of their job to protect people.” 

“It’s not just about protecting the public and incarcerated. It’s protecting themselves as well,” said Reinhart, who is the lead health and justice systems researcher at Data and Evidence for Justice Reform at the World Bank.

Correctional environments are often inherently complicated and antagonistic environments. While there is a power dynamic and distrust between incarcerated people and staff, some staff may also distrust their leadership, Hart said.

“There is fear both short term and long term, that [staff] have had prior to the pandemic,” said the Vera Institute’s Hart, “… the distrust that was there pre-pandemic is definitely there.”

Hart has seen some staff quit already understaffed facilities across the country due to vaccine requirements and others hold off on getting it because they are afraid.

“Time is of the essence because staffing numbers are impacting the functionality,” Hart said.

Not to mention jails have been a driver of COVID-19 spread in the state’s prisons.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety announced a new agreement on Oct. 1 with the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association allowing transfer of all fully vaccinated people from jails to prisons, but requiring unvaccinated detainees in jails with a COVID-19 outbreak to quarantine for 14 days before transfer and test negative before transfer.

“For more than four months, the majority of active cases of COVID-19 in the prison population have been identified in those arriving from county jails and detention facilities,” DPS said in the announcement.

NC sheriff incentivizes vaccination

Mecklenburg Sheriff Gary McFadden is routinely responsible for the lives of more than 2,000 people from staff to people incarcerated at the Mecklenburg County Detention Center.

One way he’s trying to protect them is with wristbands. 

In a push to get staff members vaccinated starting May 19, McFadden implemented a policy that vaccinated employees of the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office would wear an “MCSO vaccinated” wristband, so everyone would know who is vaccinated. Those without wristbands have to get tested for COVID weekly.

Three green bracelets say "MSCO vaccinated" There is one face mask with a sheriff's star on it.
Vaccinated staff at the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office wear “MSCO Vaccinated” wristbands. Photo courtesy Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office.

He said that within two weeks of implementing the policy, the office’s vaccination numbers increased by about 200 people. Now, he said over 70 percent of his office is vaccinated. 

The wristbands also had an unintended effect in the community — they made community members feel safer when they saw deputies showing that they were vaccinated, McFadden said.

Even when the Mecklenburg County Detention Center’s COVID-19 numbers skyrocketed, in an outbreak that has sickened 389 people since the end of August, no staff member or resident has died, according to the NCDHHS outbreak report.

“COVID has been the most deadliest killer for law enforcement this year more than any other thing,” McFadden said. “We have to understand that this is not a political thing.”

McFadden said he holds vaccination town halls both for people incarcerated in the jail and jail staff to learn about the vaccines. Vaccination is not required, but it is encouraged.

To his knowledge, McFadden said he is the only sheriff in the state and maybe the country to roll out a vaccination incentive using wristbands, but he said he’d share his ideas with “anybody.”

“You can be your own judge, and you can be your own sheriff, your own political person,” McFadden said. “I need to protect my staff, I need to protect my citizens, and I need to protect myself. And so the best way I know how is to wear masks and get vaccinated.”

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Elizabeth Thompson is our Report for America corps member who covers gender health and prison health topics. Thompson is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate who has covered Texas politics for The Dallas Morning...

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