Georgia’s correctional facilities have been hit hard by Covid-19, with 3,260 recorded  infections among incarcerated people and 93 dead, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections. 

Savannah’s Coastal State Prison on Gulfstream Road has seen eight inmates die from COVID, the second highest tally for a Georgia state prison.

Despite these grim figures, only 700 of Georgia’s nearly 46,000 inmates had been vaccinated as of Wednesday. That’s about 1.5% compared to the 21.2% of Georgians overall who have received at least one dose.

Even some of the oldest inmates who are most at risk have had difficulty accessing vaccines, said Conyers-based corrections advocate Susan Burns, who started a private Facebook group for those with a loved one in Georgia prison called “They Have No Voice” after her son was incarcerated. One member recently told her about her elderly father who requested a vaccine two months ago, but still had difficulty getting it when vaccinations finally did come to his facility. 

“When the list came out this morning, he was not on it,” Burns said.

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The man was vaccinated only after his daughter intervened, Burns said. She continues her advocacy even though her son was released and is doing well.

“The punishment is to be incarcerated,” Burns said. “it’s not to be exposed to deadly diseases. It’s simply to be incarcerated.” 

More vaccines are coming, as is more information about the process, said Department of Corrections Spokeswoman Joan Heath. 

“Beginning the week of April 12, we expect to begin receiving 2,000 doses per week which we will use to continue with the offender vaccination process,” Heath wrote in an email on March 31. “We expect to begin including vaccine counts in our COVID dashboard in the next 7-10 days, at which time you will be able to track status of total vaccinations.”

Vaccine rollout

Other states are doing better than Georgia in vaccinating this vulnerable population under state care, said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. 

She helps run the The COVID Prison Project, an effort by a group of interdisciplinary, public health scientists to create a publicly accessible database on the state of COVID-19 within U.S. correctional facilities.

“We’ve seen some systems that have offered vaccine to their entire prison populations. So we’ve seen that in Massachusetts and Rhode Island,” she said. “And then we’ve seen other states that have a high percentage of people who are incarcerated who have been given access to the vaccine. So California, and Virginia come to mind.”

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It’s not just about the health of incarcerated people, Brinkley-Rubinstein said.

“There’s such an explicit connection between what happens in prisons and jails and the surrounding communities,” she said. “We’ve seen staff who move in and out, maybe have exposure inside of the jail, and then bring that back to the community that they live in. And so the main argument is that when you vaccinate people in these high risk settings, you’re actually also really protecting the surrounding community.”

In-person visitation that’s been suspended for more than a year was scheduled to begin again April 3, providing a huge relief to those who haven’t seen their loved ones but also offering the virus another opportunity to spread.  

Gov. Brian Kemp has defended Georgia’s vaccine rollout as targeting the most vulnerable populations, touting on March 23 that three-quarters of the state’s elderly had been vaccinated. 

But prisoners are an overlooked vulnerable population, advocates say. And about 8% of Georgia’s incarcerated population is over age 60 and 60% are Black, two additional risk factors for poor outcomes with COVID.

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“The rate of contracting COVID in the incarcerated population is four times that of those out here,” Burns said. “And in fact, it’s about three times that rate for the staff. Part of that has to do with lack of precautions, no hand soap being, well, in any Georgia prison. No warm water to wash your hands with. No sanitizer, a lack of cleaning chemicals in general, generally filthy conditions, and the inability to get away from each other.”

Yet Georgia is one of 13 states in which its incarcerated population was not included in its vaccination distribution plan, according to an analysis by the COVID Prison Project.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends including correction workers as essential workers, and suggests they be prioritized right behind medical workers and people in long term care facilities. The CDC also recommends that correction workers and incarcerated people be vaccinated “at the same time because of their shared increased risk of disease.” 

But as the COVID Prison Project notes, Georgia’s vaccination plan doesn’t  prescribe how incarcerated people will be prioritized. The main mention of this population comes in the document’s Frequently Asked Questions:

“Will vaccines be shipped to jails/ correctional institutions once the critical workforce has been vaccinated? Answer: No. Federal correctional institutions will receive guidance and vaccine directly from the CDC. If local public health would like to vaccinate at their county or local jails and are trying to develop a relationship, we have contacts with the ‘Sheriff’s Association to help establish the relationship, if needed. Additionally, the state vaccination planning team will work with the Georgia Department of Corrections to address their vaccination needs.”

Healthcare workers and staff and residents of long-term care facilities were listed in the highest vaccine priority groups in Georgia, which became eligible for vaccination in December. Next came those 65 or older, who began being vaccinated Jan. 11.

The first didn’t happen until more than three weeks later, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joan Heath. 

“Vaccines began on February 3rd, and were prioritized based on eligibility according to state guidelines in place at that time,” Heath wrote. 

Since February, prisoners have been vaccinated at a rate of about 10 per day. If the expected 2,000 doses per week arrive in April and continue to arrive at that rate, it could take most of the rest of the year to achieve the 70% vaccinated needed to achieve herd immunity.

Education needed

But that level of immunity depends on incarcerated people accepting the vaccine.

The Department of Corrections offers a “goody bag” of snacks and beverages plus a commissary store credit of $10 as an incentive, Heath said. 

It doesn’t seem like it’s working to Burns, whose 2,300 members give her insight on each of Georgia’s 35 facilities. She estimates the vaccine acceptance rate is about 15-20% at most of them.

It’s unclear what education about the vaccination is offered. Whatever it is will need to overcome the misinformation plus mistrust inmates have.

“They are people, not merely inmates or convicts or prisoners. They’re people,” Burns said. “But they don’t have a lot of information in general. And they’re very distrustful, in my opinion with reason, of the administration, or the leadership of the prison system.”

After a year without visits and with COVID outbreaks it’ll be even harder to overcome that mistrust, but places like Rhode Island have found a way to get up to 80% of their incarcerated population to accept the vaccine, Brinkley-Rubinstein said.

She has heard heard the argument that prison populations don’t need vaccinations because many have developed natural immunity from exposure to the virus. 

“My counter argument is always that we have all these new variants that have emerged. So people could definitely become re-infected with a variant,” she said. “And we don’t actually have very good data on reinfection in general, and we know it’s possible. So those are the two arguments that are used against that (argument that) everyone’s gotten it.” 

Mary Landers is the environment and health reporter at the Savannah Morning News. Contact her at 912-655-8295. Twitter: @MaryLandersSMN

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