The Virginia Department of Corrections is working to get inmates vaccinated as COVID-19 cases surge at the Fluvanna County Correctional Center for Women.
The Troy-based facility currently has the second-highest number of infected inmates in Virginia prisons, with a total of 129 cases among inmates and 14 among staff, according to the DOC.
Inmates are included in phase 1b of the state vaccination plan, and the inoculation process in state-run prisons is being overseen by the DOC. According to the department’s website, 4,529 inmates and 2,845 staff members have been infected statewide.
The vaccine is being rolled out across the state as doses are received from the Virginia Department of Health, according to Lisa Kinney, director of communications for the DOC.
According to Kinney, Fluvanna is a hub site that feeds the Moderna vaccines to prisons in Buckingham and Dillwyn and to probation and parole programs. As of Wednesday, 295 inmates at Fluvanna had been offered the vaccine and of those, 213 accepted it.
“We want all staff and inmates who want to get vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” Kinney said. “We’re doing a lot of education around the vaccine, for both staff and inmates, so everyone has all the information they need to make an informed choice.”
The DOC vaccine education campaign includes memos, videos, printed material, the JPay system, the Inmate Wellness Channel and hotline numbers.
Additionally, the DOC pharmacist has recorded interviews with medical and public safety authorities and shared those with staff and inmates, according to Kinney.
“We are running vaccine information on the Inmate Wellness Channel that we created after the pandemic started in order to provide health and wellness information to the inmates; we are sharing [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] info; we are sharing photos of DOC staff getting their vaccines, etc.,” she said.
One of the ways the DOC is attempting to convince inmates to get the vaccine is by offering them “incentive packs.”
According to a memo provided to Fluvanna inmates, the incentive packs include: 15 free stamps used for inmates’ Jpay accounts; a $1 credit to use for a 20-minute phone call; and a commissary pack that includes a Quaker granola bar, a chocolate chip cookie, a Nutrigrain cereal bar and ramen noodles.
Inmates have to get both doses of the vaccine, with the second shot given 28 days after the first, to qualify for the incentive package.
Despite these measures, at least one inmate in Fluvanna, who wished to remain anonymous out of concern for her safety, feels inmates are not being provided with enough information.
As someone with severe allergies that cause anaphylaxis, the inmate said she has been told by staff that she will not be able to speak with a doctor until it is time to vaccinate.
“I am petrified that I will be the one anomaly that will die from an allergic reaction,” she said. “I am afraid if I don’t take it, I will be infected because COVID is spreading at such an alarming rate here.”
The internal videos shown to inmates have done little to assuage her concerns, she said, and she has resorted to using phone calls with family to fish for information about how the Moderna vaccine may impact those with pre-existing allergies.
While the incentive packs are helpful, she said many of the inmates needed communication assistance prior to COVID-19 and will still need it after.
“I think it is distasteful to wave food in front of people who need the food and not care about what happens to them the rest of their time,” she said. “It breaks my heart to see the women coaxed because of their poverty.”
Now relegated to a “red zone” used to separate those potentially exposed to COVID-19 from those not, she said she is now experiencing COVID-like symptoms and has few methods to file complaints with the prison.
According to Kinney, the DOC uses risk stratification methods that include red, yellow and green zones. Red zones are known as COVID-19 areas, yellow zones are quarantined areas or busy areas with undifferentiated patients and green zones are low-traffic areas and places with no known COVID cases, no symptomatic inmates and no inmate mixing, Kinney said.
Offenders testing positive are placed in medical isolation so they don’t infect others.
“We treat symptoms as they arise, just as you would in any primary care setting,” Kinney said. “We can provide many things, including oxygen, on site. If they require an inpatient level of care, they go to a hospital.”
Shannon Ellis, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said several inmates at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women and other facilities have expressed apprehension about getting vaccinated because they have not been able to speak with a medical professional before being offered the shot.
“That’s not because people don’t want to be protected against COVID-19; it’s because they are afraid that, with their underlying health conditions, the vaccine will not be safe for them,” Ellis said. “Those fears could be assuaged if [the DOC] was doing appropriate education, sending doctors or nurses to the wings to give talks to explain to people — especially people with serious health conditions — why it’s safe for them.”
In addition to providing inmates with enough resources to feel like they can give informed consent, Ellis said showing the staff and leadership support for the vaccine could go a long way to encourage widespread vaccinations.
“For example, televising the warden getting the shot, the medical leadership getting the shots so that people incarcerated see that people in leadership positions are demonstrating that they believe this is safe,” she said.
Unlike at Fluvanna, vaccines for the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail will be administered via the Blue Ridge Health District, which entered phase 1b earlier this month.
According to Martin Kumer, superintendent of ACRJ, inmate vaccinations are expected to begin in the coming weeks, though a specific date has not been determined.
Inmates will receive CDC material regarding the vaccine well in advance of the vaccine administration date, Kumer said, and will be able to ask questions of medical staff prior to getting the shot.
ACRJ and the health district also are attempting to figure out a way to vaccinate those currently released on home electronic incarceration. Those people will likely need to report to the jail on the days the rest of the inmates are vaccinated or they will be instructed to report to a vaccination clinic.
Kumer said ACRJ also will utilize on-site incentive packs, similar to those being used by corrections department.
“We used the same tactic to great success when we did the facility-wide testing,” he said. “Our population appreciated it and we had over 98% of our population get tested.”