Only a third of staff at regional jail have elected to receive shots

According to Superintendent Russell Gilkison, roughly a third of the staff at Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren Regional Jail have elected to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. But those 400 or so inmates are still waiting.

“We’re working with the local health department and Warren County’s emergency manager to figure out how the vaccinations are going to occur and when they’re going to occur,” Gilkison said. “Unfortunately I think there’s some accessibility [issues] to deal with.” 

Incarcerated individuals at jails and prisons are included in Phase 1b, and according to the Virginia Department of Corrections, 13,256 of the roughly 22,000 prisoners in the state have received vaccines.

Colin Greene, director of the Lord Fairfax Health District that is responsible for administering vaccines to RSW, said that he and his colleagues are “presently discussing the process for vaccinating [inmates], along with the remainder of the people who qualify in the present phase, and including other congregated populations such as the homeless and certain occupations.”

But he said the health district’s attention is focused on vaccinating the elderly, as they are at the greatest risk for bad outcomes. 

And small jails, like RSW, typically see high rates of turnover, with an average length of stay of between 8 and 10 days. RSW regional jail has experienced two major outbreaks since last March, fortunately with no deaths. 

Still, according to researchers, prisoners are 5.5 times more likely than the general population to get COVID-19, and 40 out of the 50 largest outbreaks in the country since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred in correctional facilities. And in Virginia, at least 54 incarcerated individuals have died of COVID-19.

“Incarcerated people were originally not going to be part of the 1b group in vaccine rollout which in itself was really hugely problematic because they are by definition in congregate settings,” said Shannon Ellis, a civil rights and racial justice attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center. 

“It’s very well known that incarcerated people have a notably higher incidence of chronic health conditions — multiple chronic health conditions — than the general public and thus are more likely to be at risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19,” Ellis said.

But as important as the vaccine is, Ellis said it is just as important to provide inmates with information and access to medical counseling about the COVID-19 vaccine and its side effects. Incarcerated individuals don’t have the same access to news and information that people enjoy on the outside.

“They can’t access the internet … and they don’t have an option of calling their doctor or making a tele-Med appointment to say to a primary care physician, ‘Is this safe for me? Should I take it?’ 

“But if you’re given that vaccine without someone warning you that you may have, for example, significant swelling and chills after receiving it, that would be very frightening. So there are people who that has happened to who now are afraid to take their second doses.

“So what we’re seeing is really high rates in prisons of vaccine hesitancy and vaccine refusal,” Ellis said.

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In an effort to coax inmates to get the vaccine, the Virginia Department of Corrections implemented a controversial incentive program, offering email stamps, care packages and even extra phone call vouchers. 

But civil rights advocates like Ellis are troubled by the incentive program, which they argue unfairly rations contact with loved ones during an extraordinarily difficult time when many inmates haven’t been able to physically see their loved ones for nearly a year.

At RSW regional jail, Superintendent Gilkison is not planning to offer incentives. “I understand some people making the decision to do that but I can also see that if for some reason there was an adverse effect from someone receiving the vaccination and we coerced them to do that, then we could be opening ourselves up for liability,” he said. 

“I’d rather let people make their own decisions at this point and let them choose what they want to do.” 

Until inmates are inoculated themselves, Ellis said staff pose the greatest health risks to jail and prison populations. “If it weren’t for staff people coming in and out, [inmates] would not be exposed to whatever it is in the community, so the staff members are the risk. Obviously they’re also necessary, you need them … with everyone in lockdown, [inmates are] a lot more reliant on staff,” she said.

When asked if he would mandate vaccines for his employees, Gilkison said he would not. “It’s a personal health decision so it’s not really my place as an employer to pressure them to make a decision one way or the other,” he said.

“Everybody has their own health decisions that they make based upon their history of health and things like that.”