Fla. COs still waiting for details on COVID-19 vaccination plan
Ten months into the pandemic, Florida's corrections department is one of the hardest-hit state agencies
By Ana Ceballos
The Miami Herald
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has submitted a request that could clear the way for thousands of state prisoners who are 65 and older to get a coronavirus vaccine, but it has yet to be approved by state health officials.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has directed that the first doses of the vaccine go to Floridians older than 65, but his administration is not saying when inmates who are in that age group will be eligible.
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Jason Pizzo, who talked to Inch about the pending request on Wednesday, told the Herald Times that Inch has identified 4,169 inmates who would qualify under the state's age group criteria. Florida currently holds roughly 80,000 inmates in prisons, Inch said.
The Florida Department of Corrections has not said how many of its roughly 23,000 workers are eligible for the vaccine right now. The Herald Times has asked for the figure on numerous occasions over a two-week period. State health officials, however, said some corrections workers who have direct contact with patients, have priority status.
Ten months into the coronavirus pandemic, Florida's corrections department is one of the hardest-hit state agencies, with more than 17,560 inmates and 4,603 workers contracting the virus to date. Five staff members and 196 prisoners have died from complications of the disease.
While the vaccine could mark a turning point in the state's prison system, thousands of inmates and workers are waiting for details on when they will become eligible for the vaccine.
Denise Rock, the executive director of a nonprofit inmate advocacy group, Florida Cares, said a department official told her Thursday that the Florida Department of Health has not signed off on the request to make vaccines available to elderly inmates.
"The department did what it was supposed to do, but it [the request] has not been approved," Rock said.
The Florida Department of Corrections, DeSantis' office and the Florida Department of Health have not answered questions from the Herald Times on the vaccination plan for inmates and the majority of prison workers.
DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said Wednesday that the state's focus is on vaccinating residents and staff in long-term care facilities, seniors 65 and older, and healthcare personnel with direct patient contact, and that plans for future distribution would be announced when more supplies become available. She did not clarify if inmates who meet the age criteria qualify.
When supplies become available, inmates will need to sign a consent form to get vaccinated, Inch told Pizzo over the phone on Wednesday.
No plan for corrections staff, either
As Florida healthcare workers line up to get early coronavirus vaccines, the status of prison workers who have direct contact with inmates who are positive for COVID-19 has also come into question.
Rock said corrections officers who work in dorms and have constant contact with inmates should be prioritized for the vaccine. By vaccinating prison workers,the inmates who are in the care of the state would be protected, she said.
"I think that is absolutely what they should do," she said.
Florida Department of Health spokesman Jason Mahon said this week that some corrections workers, including nurses and doctors who have direct contact with patients, are considered a priority in the state's vaccination plan. All eligible workers are being asked to contact their local hospitals or county health department regarding the availability of the vaccine, Mahon said.
But union officials for prison staff say they have been offered little to no guidance by state corrections officials.
"The fact that the department can't tell us where their workers fit in, that scares me. And I am sure it scared officers, too," said Jim Baiardi, who leads the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association. "I mean there has to be some kind of plan."
Corrections officials have not said what type of resources and information about the vaccine are being provided to eligible workers.. They also have not said how many eligible workers have been vaccinated so far.
Inch told Pizzo on Wednesday the department cannot force workers to get the vaccine.
Legislators may get answers soon
Baiardi said he has repeatedly asked the department for clarity on who will be prioritized for the vaccine. He was told last week that the plan was still being developed, and that there was "uncertainty" because of the different storage requirements for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine vials, which need to be kept in ultra-cold freezers to work.
Pizzo said Inch is expected to give a presentation to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee next week that will cover several legislative priorities for the department. Committee members will have an opportunity to ask him questions about the department's vaccination plan.
People held in confinement are considered to be more vulnerable to the virus than the general population, in part due to the close quarters that make it hard to remain socially distant from those who become ill.
A recent study by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found that incarcerated individuals are four times more likely to become infected than people in the general population.
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