Mass. working to educate prisoners about getting the coronavirus vaccine

WBUR – January 27, 2021

Inmate Christian Millett, of Worcester, gets the first of two COVID-19 vaccine shots administered by Alyssa Dobbs, an LPN contractor, in the medical department at the Worcester County Jail and House of Corrections in West Boylston on Jan 22, 2021. (David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In the first week of vaccinating Massachusetts prisoners against the coronavirus, more than 1,400 people held in state prisons have gotten the shot, and officials are holding vaccine education programs to encourage more to do the same.

The Department of Correction says since vaccinations began Jan. 18 for staff and prisoners, 1,442 doses have been given to those in custody and 1,624 have been administered to staff. The DOC says the vaccine is offered to all prisoners regardless of their housing or disciplinary status. Once the shot is given, there is a 15 to 30 minute observation period to identify any adverse reaction and medical staff are supervising the injections.

The department also says vaccine education and awareness campaigns are ongoing.

Prisoners — along with people in homeless shelters, addiction treatment programs  and other residential congregate care settings — are in the first phase of vaccine distribution in Massachusetts. The state expects that will involve vaccinating 94,000 residents and staff in those settings.

Massachusetts is among a handful of states that prioritizes correctional facilities in the early stages of distributing the vaccine — a move Gov. Charlie Baker has said is because of the inherent risks of people living in close quarters, and the potential that they could transmit the virus to the larger community.

But the COVID vaccine poses some challenges unique to correctional facilities — especially about follow-up medical care for potential adverse reactions and instilling trust in correctional medical staff administering the vaccine.

Prisoners’ advocates say more information is crucial to getting more incarcerated people to agree to get the shot. They say the history of using prisoners for medical experiments and questions about care for any potential side effects make many detainees concerned. Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian recently said a survey he conducted found that almost 60% of those incarcerated said they would refuse the vaccine.

“I’m happy that prisoners are in the first phase of the vaccine rollout because the outbreaks in jails and prisons are still bad so it makes sense for that to be happening,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. “We still think that more information needs to be provided to address the concerns prisoners have so that the number of people taking the vaccine increases.”

Among those working on getting more information to prisoners is Dr. Kathryn Stephenson, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard University and infectious disease specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Stephenson recently led an education campaign at the Middlesex County House of Correction. She held sessions with about 40 prisoners and a dozen jail workers to help dispel myths and encourage people to get vaccinated. The biggest questions she faced were about the safety of the vaccine and potential side effects.

“It was really important to me when I came into that setting to let people know that I don’t work for the jail, ” Stephenson said. “I’m a scientist and infectious disease doctor and my only responsibility and commitment is to advocate for patients and for the community. So maybe today or tomorrow I don’t convince a particular individual to get the vaccine, but I lay a foundation so that when some of these gentlemen go home — some in a short time from now — they’ll continue the conversation. “

Stephenson said he hopes to hold more informational sessions in more jails going forward.

Some of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the country have been in correctional facilities, with prisoners estimated to be four times more likely to be infected than the general population, and twice as likely to die of COVID-19. The state says 19 DOC prisoners have died from COVID, but that does not include at least two prisoners who died of the disease less than a day after they were granted medical parole. Two men held in state jails have also died of COVID-19.