As millions of Illinoisans are still waiting for their chance to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and even those who are eligible are scrambling for appointments, at least one group is largely giving up its place at the front of the vaccine line: people who work in Illinois prisons.
The state started vaccinating most of its prison workers in mid-February and finished the first round of vaccinations at the state’s 25 correctional centers earlier this month. Only 27% of staff took the shot, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Experts say because prisons have been coronavirus hotspots, the low vaccination numbers endanger not only prison inmates and correctional officers, but also the families and communities the officers return to when they leave work.
“I’m both appalled but not surprised,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center.
”I’m appalled because, of course, I think it’s pretty clear now from the science that the only way to stay safe from this deadly disease is to get vaccinated,” he said. “I’m not surprised because up until the vaccines, we also knew the best way to prevent the spread of the COVID virus was to wear masks. And what we hear from [inmates] is that the rate of mask-wearing among … guards was also abysmally low.”
Lindsey Hess, a spokeswoman for the department, said the state is continuing to educate staff and promote the vaccine, and that people who did not take the shot the first time around will be given other opportunities to be vaccinated.
Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said 4% more staff had signed up to be vaccinated this week, which would bring the total number of staff to get the first shot above 30%. AFSCME is the union that represents prison workers.
“We’re continuing to see growth, which is a good thing, but obviously there’s a lot of room to continue to improve,” Lindall said. “Our union has been heavily focused on this, and I personally have been devoting a lot of my time to vaccine-acceptance education within the last three months.”
Still, the acceptance among corrections staff is significantly lower than the national average. An NPR poll earlier this month found that more than two-thirds of American adults either had already gotten a vaccine shot or were planning to get one.
According to the department, 63% of Illinois inmates have gotten the first vaccine dose, more than doubling the acceptance rate of the people meant to guard and protect them.
The vaccine hesitancy among prison staff is especially perplexing because of the environment they work in. Prisons have been COVID-19 hotspots since the start of the pandemic, and the people who work inside of them are at high risk of contracting the virus.
“Prisons present enormously dangerous environments [for COVID-19]. You have a lot of people in close contact with an inability to social distance,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, the leader of the independent prison watchdog the John Howard Association.
Lindall, the union spokesman, said he did not think the vaccination rate among prison workers was especially low and said they’ve seen hesitancy or skepticism “among all different types of workers and in all different parts of the state.”
Despite a collaborative effort by the state and the union to educate prison workers about the vaccine, Lindall said many of the staffers were refusing the vaccine based on bad information. He said workers were saying they didn’t need the vaccine because they already had COVID-19 and believe the antibodies will keep them safe. Others believed they didn’t need it because they are “young and healthy,” while others were worried about a potential allergic reaction.
Mills, from the Uptown law center, said he was encouraged to hear the union was actively promoting the vaccine. He said the state and its department of corrections have been great partners in pushing the vaccine to inmates and staffers.
Mills believes the reluctance among prison workers may be “political or cultural.”
“My concern is that [prison staff] are folks who often live downstate in solidly Republican districts, which went heavily for Trump, and that they listen to Trump about how this is all fake,” Mills said.
The vast majority of prisons in Illinois are in counties former President Donald Trump won in the 2020 election. Trump has promoted the vaccine, but also notoriously downplayed the risks of the virus.
The NPR poll found that Republicans were significantly less likely to take the vaccine, and corrections workers refusing the COVID-19 vaccine is a problem nationwide.
In Illinois, there are actually more corrections staff currently positive for COVID-19 than there are inmates, according to the Department of Corrections. The agency reports that over the past year, more than 10,000 of the state’s 28,000 inmates have contracted the virus. Since the pandemic began, 87 inmates and one staff member have died of COVID-19.
Experts say the state numbers are likely low because the department did not start doing widespread testing until December 2020. Mills said after dragging its feet last year, the department has significantly improved its efforts in the “last couple months” and has gotten the virus under control inside the prisons. He said the vaccine is needed to make sure there’s not another outbreak.
Beyond keeping the people who live and work in prisons safe, the low vaccination rate is also a risk to the outside world.
“What happens in prison does not stay in prison,” Mills said. “So even if the prisoners are 100% vaccinated, which, by the way, they’re not, the guards are still going to spread it among themselves and then they’re going to bring it back to the community, back to their families. … They’re interacting with their kids. They’re interacting with their spouses. They’re interacting with neighbors. It’s a disaster waiting to happen in the communities around [prisons].”