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As the state rushes to vaccinate teenagers before the school year ends and is offering incentives such as L.L. Bean gift cards and Sea Dogs tickets to encourage adults to get vaccinated against COVID-19, one group — jail inmates and prisoners — remains dangerously undervaccinated.
Just 17 percent of people incarcerated in Maine’s prison system had received a final COVID-19 vaccine dose as of April 30, according to Department of Corrections data. Vaccination rates among jail inmates varied from 70 percent in Piscataquis County to zero at the jail in Wiscasset, according to a Bangor Daily News survey.
Despite the federal government recommending that prison staff and populations be vaccinated at the same time as residents of nursing homes and other congregate living facilities, Maine did not offer vaccines to incarcerated people until March. Corrections staff were part of an initial phase.
Delaying the vaccination of prisoners and jail inmates has contributed to several recent outbreaks, putting the health and lives of inmates, their families, their communities and state residents in general at risk.
“From Day One, the government should have prioritized people who are incarcerated with others who live in congregate settings,” ACLU of Maine lawyer Emma Bond told the BDN.
State and county officials have only recently stepped up the pace of vaccination.
“All [Maine Department of Corrections] facilities are in the midst of a strong push to vaccinate residents. By the end of this week’s round of vaccinations we anticipate more than 1,150 residents will have received vaccinations,” Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said in a statement to the BDN editorial board last Friday. “With a total population of just over 1,600, we’re doing better than most prisons and better than many communities across the nation in terms of vaccinations.”
We understand the challenges to vaccinating those who are incarcerated. Initially, the number of vaccines was limited and the pause in usage of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is administered as a single dose making it an attractive option for reaching inmates, presented challenges. Vaccinations in Maine are now offered on a walk-in basis in many locations and several mass vaccination sites plan to close as demand for the shots has decreased.
In addition, the population, especially in jails, changes over time as inmates are released and new ones enter. This, however, further highlights the need to offer the vaccine to those in state and county custody.
“More than five months after Maine began administering the COVID-19 vaccine, the majority of correctional facilities have yet to vaccinate more than half of their incarcerated populations in a patchy system across the state,” BDN reporters Jessica Piper and Caitlin Andrews wrote last week.
At one correctional facility, Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, inmates were not offered vaccines until this week. The jail was the site of a coronavirus outbreak last month. Twenty-seven prisoners and three staff members tested positive for the virus as of April 29, according to a Maine CDC spokesperson.
Jails and prisons have accounted for some of the largest outbreaks in Maine in recent months, including one that infected 67 at the Cumberland County Jail in April. A March outbreak at the Maine State Prison in Warren led to 15 cases, while more than two dozen at the Maine Correctional Center women’s prison in Windham tested positive for the virus as of late April.
Maine has the lowest number of COVID-19 cases in prisons of any state and one of the lowest prison case rates in the country.
Outbreaks in correctional centers are often traced to employees or contractors who bring the virus into the facilities. This highlights the need to increase vaccination rates among correctional employees as well. Sixty-one percent of Department of Corrections staff are fully vaccinated, according to the department.
Among the jails that responded to a BDN survey, staff vaccination rates ranged from about 25 percent in Oxford County and Two Bridges, which covers Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, to upward of 70 percent in Kennebec and Piscataquis counties.
While it is good news that the Department of Corrections and county jails are stepping up their efforts to vaccinate the people in their care, this focus needs to be sustained.