Vaccination rates against COVID-19 among staff in New York jails and prisons are significantly lagging behind other congregate settings and New Yorkers in the general population, according to data provided to WNYC/Gothamist.
Five months after becoming eligible, just 31% of staff members in city jails—3,074 out of 9,882 employees—have received at least one dose of the vaccines at Rikers or in their communities. This vaccination rate has increased only 11% since April, despite improvements in availability through citywide walk-in appointments and other measures.
By comparison, New York state went from 39% to 56% with a single dose over the same timeframe, increasing 17 percentage points. Likewise, the Bronx—the borough that technically houses Rikers Island—witnessed a similar-sized jump from 28% to 44%, a boost of 16 percentage points.
“The [correctional] facility needs to survey the staff, take efforts to understand what the concerns are and then use credible messengers to address them,” said Homer Venters, a clinical associate professor at New York University’s School of Global Public Health and former chief medical officer for the city’s jail system.
State prisons appear to be faring no better. In April, 7,538 out of 26,623 employees—28%—had been inoculated at vaccine sites run by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). Since then, this number has not increased at all, though it might be an undercount because staff are not required to report to DOCCS if they get a shot in sites open to the general public.
But these numbers still fall well below staff rates for other congregate settings. Workers in homeless shelters and nursing homes have made significant headway, with more than 60% of employees at least partially vaccinated.
After touring 40 jails and prisons across the country, Venters said he thinks correctional workers’ concerns vary markedly. In some facilities, they’re worried about the ability to take time off if they experience mild side effects. Others focus on the long-term safety of the shots, even though after administering hundreds of millions of doses, the U.S. has recorded relatively few severe outcomes. The CDC reports that “vaccine monitoring has historically shown that side effects generally happen within six weeks of receiving a vaccine dose,” meaning long-term consequences are unlikely with the COVID-19 jabs.
“We now know, we have more than enough knowledge, that this is a real national problem,” Venters said. “Correctional staff are not taking the vaccine, and there’s a lot of them.”
It’s profoundly ironic.
President Biden set a goal of putting at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine in 70% of American arms by July 4th, and Venters said he’d like to see an even higher percentage in correctional facilities to prevent large COVID outbreaks from happening in these settings again as states reopen.
Higher percentages of incarcerated New Yorkers have been inoculated both at Rikers and state prisons—37% and 40%, respectively—relative to their staff. Following a court order, Governor Andrew Cuomo opened up eligibility to all state inmates on March 30th, nearly three months after offering shots to corrections officers.
John J. Lennon, who’s serving a 28-years-to-life sentence at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg and working as a contributing editor to Esquire, has written about the spread of COVID in his prison. He said in an interview that he had noticed more hesitancy within the officers’ than prisoners’ ranks, which he found surprising.
“It’s profoundly ironic,” he said. “This is the government, right? The government is putting forth the vaccine. They’re offering it.”
Jason Kersten, a press secretary for the New York City Department of Correction, said vaccines are available on Rikers Island, and employees have been regularly encouraged to take them through town halls and direct, in-person engagement.
“We have done everything possible to encourage our staff members to get vaccinated,” Kersten said. “These efforts are ongoing, and we need everyone at the table to help us combat hesitancy.”
New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, the union representing more than 30,000 active and retired members, isn’t “overly encouraging” its members to get the COVID-19 shots.
“Who am I to suggest to anybody as to what to put into their body,” said president Michael Powers, who is himself vaccinated.
Some states are taking additional steps to encourage prison officers. Colorado is offering its Department of Correction employees $500 if they get fully vaccinated.
Mark Levine, who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Health, said he’s in favor of introducing these types of incentives in New York. But he suspects prisons and jails will eventually need to mandate the vaccine for their workers.
“Hospitals, nursing homes and jails are probably the three highest risk settings,” he said. “We have to surge resources and promote vaccination, to incentivize vaccination, and ultimately potentially to require it among staff. The risk is just enormous.”