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Eligible Louisiana Prisoners Get COVID Vaccine

by Jayson Hawkins


National health experts were concerned early in the pandemic that prisons would prove to be superspreader sites for COVID-19.

They were right.

According to The Marshall Project, more than 20% of the incarcerated population nationwide had tested positive for the novel coronavirus as of December 2020. The near-impossibility of practicing social distancing inside tightly packed prisons continued to be a source of concern into 2021, especially with the rise of more virulent variants of the virus.

Not all news has been bad, though.

The Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) announced in early February that nearly 85% of its prisoners who were eligible to receive the vaccine so far had opted to do so. That percentage far exceeded that of other groups to whom the vaccine had been made available.

The initial roll-out in the state qualified frontline workers and people over 70 to be vaccinated. Rather than classify prisoners as a separate priority group as recommended by the American Medical Association, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said incarcerated individuals would be treated no differently than other residents.

“As we open up priority groups for out general population, we will vaccinate those same priority groups who are actually in our prisons,” he stated.

The same policy applied to state prisoners being held in local jails and was expected to encompass those over age 70 who were awaiting trial as well. Louisiana planned to expand eligibility to everyone over 65 in mid-February.

Medical professionals believe around 70% of any population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. An unexpected number of health-care workers rejected their initial opportunity to get their first vaccine dose, which made the high acceptance rate among prisoners a pleasant surprise to state officials.

The DOC’s success may be attributable to small incentives like a $5 canteen credit for prisoners who get vaccinated and the promise of a return to “normal” prison life.

Louisiana joined at least 35 states that had begun offering vaccines to their incarcerated populations as of February 2021.

Dr. Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, co-founder of the COVID Prison Project, pointed to how crucial these states’ efforts to educate prisoners on the safety and benefits of the vaccine had been, especially considering the “long and justified history of mistrust” from prisoners being used as guinea pigs in decades past.

Never before have prisoners had the opportunity to make such a positive impact on the well-being of all — incarcerated and free — just by opting for a shot in the arm.



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