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No Pay for Iowa Prisoners Overdosed With COVID-19 Vaccine

by Benjamin Tschirhart

On October 3, 2022, the State Appeals Board of Iowa heeded the advice of the state Attorney General’s office and unanimously rejected the claims of a group of state prisoners overdosed with COVID-19 vaccine.

When prisoners at Iowa State Penitentiary (ISP) were given vaccinations for COVID-19 in April 2021, the medical department abruptly stopped using the Moderna vaccine and began using the Pfizer preparation instead, according to the prison staff union. Then nurses responsible for administering the vaccine were given no training and only 90 minutes to prepare before they began delivering injections. Unknown to them, however, the new doses were in concentrated form, requiring dilution with saline solution. As a result, 77 prisoners were overdosed, each receiving six times more than the intended amount. [See: PLN, June 2021, p.62.]

In the aftermath, two nurses were fired, and 52 of the 77 prisoners filed a claim for damages for $1 million each. However, the vaccine overdoses caused no adverse effects beyond those commonly experienced: fever, fatigue, body aches and pain at the injection site. Even if they had been harmed by the overdose, the Attorney General’s office said the state was off the hook under the federal Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, a 2005 law that provides liability immunity for public vaccine administration. That’s why state lawyers advised the three members of the appeals board that no damages would be forthcoming – because “the state is immune from claims arising out of administration of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Meanwhile the nurses were held responsible for the error. A spokesman for the state Department of Corrections (DOC) said it “expects its nurses to be able to read and follow instructions for administering vaccines to those under their care.” During the investigation following the error, administrations of vaccines at ISP were put on hold. A letter from the warden on May 10, 2021, reported the investigators’ conclusion: Nurse Amanda Dodson had violated several work rules and policies, suggesting she was inattentive and unfamiliar with essential duties and did not properly administer medications.

The letter instructed Dodson to turn in her state-issued uniform and badge before receiving her last paycheck on May 21, 2021. State records show she had worked for DOC since 2003, starting as a radiological technologist before becoming a registered nurse in 2013. She earned $75,252 in 2020.

Dodson and the union representing prison staff, Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, appealed the firing in July 2021 to the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board, arguing that Dodson was unjustly terminated and asking that she be reinstated with back pay and “held blameless for this incident.”

“The [DOC] has an obligation to ensure proper training of its employees and they should have notified the nurses earlier and provided adequate training,” said union spokesman Troy Price. Dodson also applied for unemployment benefits, which DOC challenged. But in October 2021 an administrative law judge ruled in her favor, finding that her error was one of poor judgement, not the sort of misconduct that would disqualify receiving unemployment.

In June 2022, the Iowa Board of Nursing said it fined Dodson $500 and ordered her to take 14 hours of educational training on medication errors.

Source: AP News, Iowa Capital Dispatch, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

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