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Some MDOC health care workers may get COVID-19 vaccine next week

Hands gripping jail cell bars
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The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially brutal for Michigan’s corrections system, with nearly 20,000 inmates testing positive since the pandemic began - a staggering figure, given the state’s entire prison population stood around 39,000 in March.

“We are still auditing the numbers to ensure we weed out any double counts or additional reinfections, but yes, it’s about 50% in total,” says Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz.

“Right now in our prisons, we have about 34,000 prisoners [after several thousand received parole]  and less than 8,000 are actively positive.”

According to state data, 102 inmates and 3 Michigan Department of Corrections staff members have died from COVID-19.

Now it looks like at least a handful of MDOC staff may be able to get the vaccine by the end of next week, says Gautz. Health care workers are in the state’s “1A” prioritization category for distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, and Gautz says that includes providers within the corrections system.

“Basically all of our direct care providers to prisoners: that would include our mental health and behavioral health, as well as physical health, nursing staff, those kind of folks,” Gautz says. “ They would fall into the first phase, in terms of our employees.”

Corrections staff in the UP will likely be first

How soon MDOC health care staff get vaccinated depends on which county they’re in, and how many doses the local county health department has to distribute. Those in the Upper Peninsula will likely receive it first, Gautz says.

“We think it's in the Alger [Correctional Facility] and Newberry [Correctional Facility]. They have a health department, I believe, that covers both of those prisons. And Marquette [County Health Department] as well seems to be very close to being able to accept our staff. And so that's very exciting for our employees.”

MDOC staff who aren’t healthcare providers will fall into the broader essential workers category known as “Phase 1B” in the state’s plan.

The department gave staff members until Thursday to respond to a survey measuring employee interest in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I understand there's going to be a lot of trepidation and concern and worry, possibly,” Gautz says. “Because it is new. But...we're hoping that our staff will look at the information that's available, that the state has provided and everything else that's out there, and take a serious look and consider getting themselves vaccinated.

“Because they are on the front line, and they have seen the effect that this has had. We've lost staff, we've lost prisoners, and we've had very healthy employees get very, very sick.”

Thousands of prisoners could be in later part of Phase 1 in state vaccine plan

But prisoners, Gautz says, won’t be vaccinated until the state is able to start “Phase 1C,”which includes people with underlying conditions that put them at higher risk or those over 65. (State health officials are hoping to be able to “overlap” categories as their supply increases, with several groups potentially being vaccinated at the same time.)

About 1,600 MDOC prisoners are over the age of 65, according to the department’s early estimates. But Gautz says many as 10,000 inmates could have underlying medical conditions.

“We're still going through all of the medical files, but we believe it's possible that there might be as many as 10,000 of our prisoners who fall into that category of having one of those pre-existing medical conditions,” he says.

The remaining prisoners would be included in “Phase 2.”

“We don't have a timeframe right now for [prisoners] right now,” Gautz says. “And really, again, it is dependent on how quickly the state goes through those phases before it hits Phase 1C.”

Still, just having some prisoners be eligible for vaccinations in Phase 1 of the state’s plan is a win, says Josh Hoe, a policy analyst for Safe and Just Michigan.

“It definitely wasn’t a given that that was going to happen,” he says. “Lots of states that are not giving access at all [in the first phases] to people in prison.”

A crisis inside

About 7,000 prisoners have been paroled since March, Gautz says, thanks to an orchestrated push to decrease the inmate population during the pandemic.

“They could have been previously eligible [for parole] or they could have turned eligible this year,” he says. “No one is paroled because of COVID, but certainly due to COVID, we took an enhanced look at all of those cases that were parole eligible.”

But given the pandemic, more needs to be done, says Natalie Holbrook, the program director of the American Friends Service Committee in Michigan.

“It’s impossible to social distance in prison,” she says. “People are getting sick and dying. And it was a disaster waiting to happen.”

Holbrook says it’s a good sign that MDOC is doing so much COVID testing at this point - more than 454,000 as of Thursday, including both staff and prisoners. But given the risks facing inmates from COVID, she’d like there to be more outside oversight of what the conditions are inside these facilities.

Prison administrators “might tell [MDOC’s] central office something is happening, but if you have a pole barn (a type of open bay housing unit) where they move 80 people who are positive, are they spreading them out through the 160 beds? Or are they clustering them? And maybe the central office says, ‘Spread them out,’ and they’re not really spreading them out, because it’s easier to watch people who are clustered.”

Given the challenges, Hoe says, this is a moment when Governor Gretchen Whitmer should use her power to commute sentences of those least likely to reoffend.

“We also would like for people at particularly high risk of infection to be made eligible for parole using the governor’s commutation powers,” Hoe says. “It is still uncertain if transmission is possible after vaccination, and obviously a lot of people have died. This is consistent with recommendations from medical experts and consistent with research that suggests people who have served over five years and are over the age of 50 are a very low risk of recidivism.”

Holbrook has the same goal.

“We’ve been pushing anyone [who has already served] 20 years or more to be reviewed seriously for commutation or parole. And I think that would mean an expansion of the parole board, to be able to handle that sort of volume...I’m hopeful she might start commuting people. Most [officials] don’t until their second term. But we’ve been really pushing for there to be some courage around this.”

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