Cook County Begins Vaccinating Jail Detainees, A Controversial Move Backed By Public Health Experts

Cook County Jail
The Cook County Department of Corrections after the jail reported its first death due to COVID-19 in Chicago on April 7, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Cook County Jail
The Cook County Department of Corrections after the jail reported its first death due to COVID-19 in Chicago on April 7, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Cook County Begins Vaccinating Jail Detainees, A Controversial Move Backed By Public Health Experts

Cook County health workers started vaccinating the 5,361 people locked up in the massive jail in Chicago this week. Inoculating inmates is based on the advice of public health experts, but it comes amid a national debate over whether incarcerated people should get priority as millions more wait for their shot at the COVID-19 vaccine.

The jail, where close quarters makes social distancing very difficult, has been a hot spot for COVID-19 almost since the start of the pandemic. Ten jail detainees have died after testing positive for the virus, along with four correctional officers at the jail.

In December, Cook County Health spokeswoman Caryn Stancik argued to the Chicago Sun-Times that the jail should be prioritized because “it’s a very transient place, with staff and detainees in and out every day.

“Vaccinating them all would protect the population inside the jail and it would absolutely protect the population outside the jail,” Stancyck told the Sun-Times.

The county’s position tracks with guidance from the federal government.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified jails and prisons as a place where COVID-19 outbreaks “are often difficult to control” and that those outbreaks can “lead to community transmission.”

The CDC recommends that jail staff and inmates get the vaccine at the same time, because each group faces the same level of risk.

Jail guards in Cook County started getting vaccinated on Jan. 20. A sheriff spokesman said as of Wednesday more than 2,200 staffers had gotten the first vaccine shot out of about 3,000 sheriff’s employees who work in the facility. Additionally, about 300 contract staff who work in the jail have gotten the vaccine.

Now jail detainees are being offered the Moderna vaccine, according to Stancyk. As of Wednesday, health officials had given the first vaccine shot to 150 detainees.

Alexa Van Brunt, director of the MacArthur Justice Center Clinic at Northwestern Law School, represents jail detainees in a class-action lawsuit over COVID-19 inside the jail. She said it was essential that detainees get access to the vaccine because the jail population is up and the virus has run rampant inside the facility, with 125 detainees positive for COVID-19 as of Feb. 2.

But she also acknowledged that it could be difficult to convince many detainees to actually take it, pointing to vaccine skepticism in American society, particularly among Black people who have been victimized in the past by unethical medical practices.

“They cannot be forced to be vaccinated. So it’s really a public health campaign … trying to get information to detainees about why the vaccine is safe and why it’s important and why they should get it,” Van Brunt said.

Guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health to prioritize detainees has drawn criticism as the vast majority of Illinois residents are still unable to access the coveted vaccine.

In Chicago for instance, the difficulty teachers have had trying to get vaccinated has played a major role in the ongoing battle over reopening schools.

The Illinois Republican Party blasted Illinois’ Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday for putting incarcerated people near the top of the vaccination list.

“Governor Pritzker is prioritizing young healthy felons … over high-risk adults. These decisions display a shameful lack of judgment by the Governor. He should reverse course.” state GOP Chairman Tim Schneider said in a statement.

Nationally, states have taken a varied approach to vaccinating people who are incarcerated, although the general consensus among public health experts is that people in jails and prisons should be vaccinated as soon as possible.

In New York, the state’s decision not to prioritize inmates prompted a lawsuit, filed Thursday by a coalition of advocacy groups.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.