Virus Hot Spot Cook County Jail Has Begun Vaccinating Guards. Will They Take It?

Cook County Jail.
The Cook County jail photographed on April 7, 2020. Guards at the facility began receiving the vaccine for COVID-19 on Wednesday. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Cook County Jail.
The Cook County jail photographed on April 7, 2020. Guards at the facility began receiving the vaccine for COVID-19 on Wednesday. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Virus Hot Spot Cook County Jail Has Begun Vaccinating Guards. Will They Take It?

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the county health agency that gets vaccines from the Chicago Department of Public Health. It is the Cook County Health system.

Cook County has begun vaccinating workers at the county jail, making them among the first frontline essential workers in the Chicago area to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The jail has been a virus hot spot, with four jail guards and 10 detainees killed by the novel coronavirus. One study last summer found that one in six COVID-19 cases in Illinois could be traced back to the jail on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Health officials have warned that the jail’s current population, sitting at more than 5,000 detainees, makes social distancing a challenge. The arrival of the vaccine provides hope, but its success will require buy-in from jail workers and detainees alike.

Cook County Health began administering vaccinations to Cook County Department of Corrections staff at the jail on Wednesday. Cook County Sheriff spokesman Matt Walberg said 308 corrections officers got the vaccine on the first day.

At that pace, with the vaccine being administered six days a week, it would only take a couple weeks to give the 3,000 or so corrections staff at the Little VIllage facility the first round of vaccine shots. However, experts say it could be a challenge to convince the majority of workers and inmates to get the vaccine.

Walberg said as of Thursday afternoon, 1,247 officers had signed up to get the vaccine — about 40% of the corrections staff at the jail.

The COVID-19 vaccines are not mandatory, and employers cannot require it while it’s still approved for emergency use only.

When asked if the sheriff’s office was considering staff reassignments or other job actions if people refuse to get vaccinated, Walberg said they are focused instead on educating the staff and providing daily information about the vaccines to encourage everyone to sign up voluntarily.

The union representing the corrections officers did not respond to requests for an interview.

In a survey of law enforcement officers conducted by Police1, a website for law enforcement professionals, just 38% of respondents said they would voluntarily take a vaccine. That’s significantly lower than the general public, based on a December study by the Pew Research Center. Immunization efforts have faced some pushback from corrections officers and police across the country. The Los Angeles police chief is attempting to boost confidence in the vaccine among his police force after an internal poll showed only 60% of LA cops were interested in being vaccinated.

The hesitancy shouldn’t come as a surprise, as there has been reluctance even among healthcare workers to fully embrace the vaccine.

Dr. John Williams, a retired physician and reserve sheriff’s deputy in Colorado, has advocated for law enforcement officers to get the vaccine as soon as they can.

Williams said corrections officers have been forced to ignore the dangers of COVID-19 in order to keep working. That might make them more afraid of a vaccine’s side effects than the harms of the coronavirus.

Williams believes that as corrections officers start seeing their colleagues get the vaccine, they will eventually come around. And he cautioned against any efforts to mandate officers get the vaccine, anticipating it would generate stronger feelings of distrust.

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 important to the health of the jail inmates that guards get vaccinated.

“Correctional officers … obviously don’t social distance from the detainees that they are overseeing and supervising and transporting. They touch them, and they come into very close contact with them,” Van Brunt said. “It’s the nature of the security apparatus at that jail. So the public health response is only effective if the [corrections officers] and staff and everybody who comes in contact with detainees also get vaccinated.

Still, Van Brunt said she didn’t understand why corrections officers were being offered the vaccine before detainees. Detainees are supposed to be vaccinated in the 1b vaccine category, along with frontline essential workers, which could begin as soon as next week.

“There is no actual reason why correctional officers should have precedence in the vaccine line,” Van Brunt said. “If detainees start getting the vaccines right away, hopefully we can make up for the lag time there. But … everybody should be getting vaccinated at the same time in the jail … because they are all subject to the same amount of risk.”

Cook County Health Chief Communications Officer Caryn Stancik said they are working with the Chicago Department of Public Health to start providing vaccines to jail detainees “as soon as possible.” The Chicago health department is in charge of distributing the vaccine within the city, including to the county health system.

Even as she pushed for detainees to gain access to the vaccine, Van Brunt acknowledged it could be difficult to convince some of them to sign on.

“Most of Illinois’ prisons and jails are predominantly Black and brown,” Van Brunt said. “We know that Black people have historically been — to say maltreated is to put it mildly — have been treated very badly by the public health authorities and by governments and subjected to medical testing. And that has given rise to a lot of skepticism about vaccinations.”

Van Brunt said detainees also cannot be forced to take the vaccine. She said the solution is “a public health campaign” inside the jail similar to efforts outside.

While corrections officers are getting access to the vaccine, Cook County officials were unable to say when sheriff’s police officers and other sheriff staff would be getting the vaccine. A distribution plan from the city of Chicago indicates Chicago police officers will get the vaccine sometime in February or March, although a police spokesman said the start date is still to be decided.

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