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More than half of the correctional employees in West Virginia have opted out of taking the COVID-19 vaccine, despite being prioritized by state health officials.
They work with more than 9,800 incarcerated people who have not been prioritized in the state’s vaccine rollout plan, against a backdrop of several recent and ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in state jails and prisons.
“I was disappointed that so many people were refusing the initial vaccine, whether through misinformation or fear,” said Matthew Brock, president of CWA Local 2055, the union representing state correctional employees. “It’s hard for me to understand. We’re hoping to increase awareness and allay people’s fears.”
More than 1,200 of the state’s 3,300 correctional employees have opted to get the vaccine so far, according to the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or roughly 36% of the agency’s staff.
The first group of DCR employees to voluntarily receive the first dose of the two-part vaccine included Brock, who added that he’s been impressed with his employer’s rollout.
“I had a small bit of tenderness at the injection site, like any other vaccine, you know, just if you touched it, it was sore,” Brock said. “But no aching in the arm, no other side effects.”
DCR leaders did not respond to requests for an interview. DCR spokesman Lawrence Messina wrote in an email that the agency is working with state leaders on a campaign to educate employees “on the safety, effectiveness and importance of the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Their work includes surveying staff.
“DCR staff have the same array of views as the general public,” Messina wrote. “Questions and issues raised run the gamut. The survey mentioned previously will help pinpoint the most prominent views and help identify the facts and information that can address and resolve them.”
On its website for COVID-19 vaccine information, including a section for frequently asked questions, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reports the vaccine’s safety and importance, saying it’s “designed to work with our immune systems so the body will be ready to fight the virus if we are exposed to the virus.”
All correctional facilities have offered at least one vaccination event since Dec. 22, according to Messina. The division is planning on holding a second round of vaccination events for staff the week of Jan. 17. Employees who already have received the first shot will have access to the second half of the COVID-19 vaccine then, too.
Vaccinating The Incarcerated
Advocates for criminal justice reform throughout West Virginia say they’re glad the state has prioritized correctional employees for the COVID-19 vaccine. Now, they add, it’s time to loop in the state’s incarcerated population.
“Vaccinating incarcerated people is paramount,” said Greg Whittington, criminal law reform campaign director for the West Virginia ACLU. “Those folks can’t get out.”
Incarcerated West Virginians are covered by the second part of the state’s two-phase vaccine allocation plan, according to Messina, which broadly encompasses the general population.
West Virginia recently began offering doses to the public after Gov. Jim Justice announced on Dec. 30 that shots would be made available to West Virginians 80 years old and older. Justice shared more detailed plans for vaccinating seniors on Wednesday.
Health workers administered more than 90,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to West Virginians by Sunday, according to data from the state DHHR. Recipients include elderly residents and essential workers.
The state has announced no plans to vaccinate the elderly in West Virginia correctional facilities at this time. State health officer Ayne Amjad said Friday that prisoners will get vaccinated as the state’s allocations allow.
“But as the governor [has] mentioned, we have not had a lot of deaths from the population of inmates,” Amjad said. “There, if you’re really sick with COVID-19, they actually transfer you out of the facility. And that’s probably why they’re doing so well there. So they have a really robust medical staff taking care of any patients there.”
DCR has confirmed five deaths from COVID-19 among the state’s incarcerated population and one death among correctional employees. Another 10 people, all incarcerated, have died during the pandemic, with DCR waiting on more information to confirm whether their deaths were COVID-19-related.
“We have a huge aging population of convicted people in the state of West Virginia,” Whittington said. “In lieu of not letting people go, then I hope and pray that they would start extending more vaccines to those folks who aren’t getting out.”
Brock from the union also said he thinks vaccines should go to high-risk people in jails and prisons as needed.
“Any inmates that fall into the high-risk categories should be included in the appeal should be included in the vaccine rollout, due to age or preexisting conditions,” Brock said. “I’m not sure about how many vaccines we have available, but any vaccinations we can get into the facilities would help our role, would help reduce the spread, be it inmate or staff.”
Overcrowding, Long-Term Effects
For the last year, Quenton King at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy has been tracking overcrowding in regional jails, which as of Sunday held roughly 58 percent of the state’s incarcerated population.
In a study on local jail spending and debt, King reports regional jail populations have increased by 81% from 2009 to 2019. King also reports jails have been over capacity for eight out of the last 11 years.
Most recently, data from correctional officials showed on Sunday that nine out of the state’s 10 regional jails had more people than their prescribed bed counts.
DCR reported on Sunday that more than 950 people in regional jails were in quarantine, which DCR’s COVID-19 policy calls for when there are “incarcerated individuals who are known to have been exposed to the virus.”
“Even though they say that you can quarantine in cells, you really can’t,” King said. “It’s not like each person in a 500-capacity jail can have their own quarantine cell. It’s not how it works.”
More recently, King has been tracking COVID-19 outbreaks in jails and prisons. The DCR has reported less than 100 active cases of COVID-19 three times since Nov. 14.
As state leaders commend DCR for its low number of reported deaths from COVID-19, the agency is reporting more recoveries each week, relying on guidelines from the CDC that “people with mild to moderate COVID-19 remain infectious no longer than 10 days after their symptoms began.”
Meanwhile, national health experts are beginning to take a closer look at the longer-term effects of COVID-19, many of which are still uncertain.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins told NPR they’re studying whether COVID-19 might lead to brain damage, and how many people that could impact. Another study of patients at Jin Yan-tan Hospital in China documents accounts of fatigue, insomnia and diminished lung function, according to a recap from the New York Times on Friday.
“I don’t think anyone is talking or even asking how incarcerated people will feel after they have recovered,” King said.
For Whittington at the ACLU, who advocates on behalf of the formerly incarcerated and is formerly incarcerated himself, this holds even more consequences for people coming out of jails and prisons, who rely on physical labor for an income.
“We’re talking about people that when they do return, they often have jobs that require them to do physical labor, or require them to work outside,” Whittington said. “And COVID-19, being a respiratory disease, attacks the lungs, and the people that can least afford their health to be damaged are the people that are the most likely to have the health damage through COVID-19.”
More than 2,600 DCR employees and incarcerated West Virginians are recorded as having recovered from the coronavirus, according to DCR data on Sunday. That includes more than 950 people in the state’s regional jails, more than 1,100 in state-run prisons and more than 580 employees.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.