Fla. COs, inmates start to receive COVID-19 vaccines
Corrections Secretary Mark Inch sent a letter to state inmates, underscoring the importance of getting a vaccine
By Jane Musgrave
Palm Beach Post
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In a move that is being cheered by those who have loved ones behind bars, the state has started giving coronavirus vaccines to inmates at the Palm Beach County jail and those held in Florida prisons.
State strike teams on Monday were at the main county jail in West Palm Beach and the one in Belle Glade, vaccinating any inmate or staff member who wanted it, said Teri Barbera, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office.
At the same time, teams have been dispatched to state prisons, including South Bay Correctional Facility in the western reaches of the county where eight inmates have died and more than 400 prisoners and staff— have been sickened by COVID-19.
Denise Rock, executive director of a West Palm Beach-based prisoner advocacy group, said once inmates are vaccinated, she hopes restrictions that were imposed to curb the spread of the virus can be relaxed.
Children could once again be allowed to be held on their parents' laps, regular visiting hours could be restored, and families could talk to their loved ones without having to shout through a plastic barrier while wearing a mask, she said.
“Hopefully, we can get back to normal,” said Rock, who runs Florida Cares.
Carey Haughwout, the county’s elected public defender, voiced similar views.
“People will be safer and the court system can begin returning to normal,” she said, after visiting an inmate who was among those who signed up to get a shot.
Barbera said she didn’t know how many inmates had requested a vaccine.
Special efforts are being made to reach out to those with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus. But, she said, enough vaccines are available to any of the roughly 1,900 inmates and any correctional officers who want it.
As of Monday evening, 183 staff and 240 inmates had been vaccinated at the two jails. Shots began on Sunday, and the clinic will wrap up on Tuesday, Barbera said.
Officials at the Florida Department of Corrections didn’t respond to an email, asking for details about the prison vaccination program.
Rock said she has been told that some 33,000 of the state’s 79,000 prisoners have asked for a shot.
Public defender seeks to 'encourage, encourage' younger inmates to get vaccine
The 41.7% rate is about the same as that for healthcare workers who work at one of the state’s 4,000 long-term care facilities.
Like their counterparts who aren’t in jail, Haughwout said she worries that younger inmates will spurn that vaccine. “Like young people everywhere, they just don’t see it as necessary for themselves,” she said.
To convince the doubters, she said she has asked her staff to help. “I’m asking my lawyers to reach out to their clients and encourage, encourage, encourage,” she said.
Rock said she was heartened to see that Corrections Secretary Mark Inch sent a letter to state inmates, underscoring the importance of getting a vaccine.
The state prison system has been hard hit by the pandemic. Cases are still being reported at 13 prisons, including South Bay, according to the state Corrections Department’s website.
In addition to the 23,776 inmates and staff who have been infected, 214 prisoners and seven correctional officers have died, according to state figures.
South Bay, which is run by the Boca Raton-based GEO Group, was among the first prisons in the state to begin offering vaccines, said Samantha Baquer, a spokesperson for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
Two other privately run prisons, in Gadsden County and Moore Haven, also held vaccination clinics last week, she said.
In the next two weeks, the state plans to offer shots to staff and inmates at all state-run prisons, Baquer said.
“The state will provide enough vaccines for all staff members and inmates who want to receive one,” she said.
The prison and jail vaccination program comes as the pace of the spread of the disease seems to have slowed.
COVID-19 cases plummet in Florida, Palm Beach County
Statewide, only 1,613 new cases were reported by state health officials Monday. That is the lowest in a single day since Oct. 5.
Cases plummeted in the county as well. The 98 reported on Monday is the smallest increase since Oct. 21.
However, the number of test results reported also reached seven-month lows.
Only 20,705 test results were reported statewide. That is the fewest since Sept. 21 and far below the average of 82,795 that have been recorded daily for the past two weeks.
The county followed the same trends with only 1,403 test results tallied. That is the lowest tally since Oct. 9.
The number of new cases reported on Mondays are typically low after offices and labs are closed over the weekend. But health officials said the long-term decline in testing is concerning.
In the first 11 days of April, 64,800 test results were reported in the county compared with 76,062 during the first 11 days of March. The pattern is being repeated across the state and nation.
Scientist concerned that COVID-19 testing is diminishing
“I am deeply worried that as states have scaled back COVID-19 testing they are starting to develop blind spots in their surveillance of the virus,” Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University said during a press call on Friday.
Without adequate testing, the virus could spread without detection, she said. “It is possible that we could be surprised to suddenly find a rise in cases resulting from infections that were spreading silently for quite some time,” she said.
The county’s health care district closed its mass testing center at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in February when a contract with a testing company expired, said Robin Kish, a spokesperson for the tax-funded district.
While it continues to offer testing at its other clinics, she said interest has dropped dramatically.
Further, while the number of cases reported Monday was low, the positivity rate remained well above the 5% level set by public health officials.
Statewide, the rate, which is a gauge of the prevalence of the virus and risk of infection, was 8%. In the county, it was 7%.
Hospitalizations for treatment of COVID-19 have also increased slightly. After dropping below 3,000 for nearly a month, patient counts began climbing last week. The 3,186 people hospitalized on Monday was the most since March 10.
The 210 people being treated Monday at county medical centers is the most since March 11.
At the same time, the number of deaths reported statewide has declined dramatically. A day after only nine were recorded, just 35 were logged on Monday. Early this month, an average of 58 fatalities were being reported in Florida each day.
In the county, 10 deaths were reported on Monday. That is above the average of five that were reported each day for the past week.
The drop in deaths may be a reflection of the success of vaccination efforts, public health officials said. With roughly 75% of the state’s 4.5 million seniors vaccinated, those who are most vulnerable to the most serious effects of the virus have been protected.
COVID BY THE NUMBERS
- 2,125,846 — People in Florida who have been diagnosed with the disease.
- 136,206 — People in the county who have tested positive.
- 31,222,346 — Confirmed cases in the United States.
- 136,265,095 — People infected worldwide.
- 34,720 — Deaths in Florida.
- 2,752 — Fatalities in the county.
- 562,275 — Deaths in the U.S.
- 2,940,055 — Global deaths.
- 4,447,965 — People in Florida fully vaccinated. Another 2,843,455 are awaiting second doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.
- 339,406 — People in the county who are fully vaccinated. Another 192,857 still need second shots.
- 25.7% — Percentage of state residents over the age of 18 who are fully vaccinated.
- 27.9% — Percentage of county residents over the age of 18 who are fully vaccinated.
- 28.6% — Percentage of people in the nation over the age of 18 who are fully vaccinated.
(c)2021 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)