Even though people held in jails or prisons are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, the Maine Department of Corrections has been slow to get doses to county jails, so much so that some have looked to other options to get shots in arms.

Corrections officers were eligible for vaccines starting in January. But while federal guidance said incarcerated people should be vaccinated at the same time as the officers,  Maine didn’t begin offering vaccines to the oldest people in state prisons until last month. Just 284 of roughly 1,600 people in prisons, about 18 percent, had been vaccinated as of April 9, the most recent number provided by the state.

And that progress is slower in Maine’s 15 county jails. Of 10 that responded to inquiries from the Portland Press Herald, only seven had administered vaccines to people in custody. The total number of shots between them was just over 100. Last year, those 10 counties held more than 1,200 of the 1,500 in county jails.

In the meantime, at least three jails have reported outbreaks in the last month. One was the Cumberland County Jail, where 51 inmates and staff tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month. Officials there have said they received 40 doses from the state, but those shipments stopped with the hold on Johnson & Johnson vaccines nearly two weeks ago. The jail has roughly 350 people in custody.

The other recent outbreaks occurred at the jails in Penobscot and Aroostook counties.

While the one-shot J&J vaccine was the most convenient for jails with rotating traffic, some counties were waiting out that pause, while others were more actively discussing their options in case they had to switch to a different vaccine and schedule second appointments. Federal health authorities lifted the pause on the J&J vaccine Friday evening, and it was again being used in Maine over the weekend.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said he has been disappointed in the vaccine rollout so far. He has not received any information from the state about whether the jail will receive another type of vaccine and when that might happen.

“We’ve been preparing ourselves and getting ready to get the vaccine, so we could get community immunity, whereby most of our corrections officers and most of our inmates would have the vaccine and that would mitigate any potential large outbreaks,” Joyce said. “And it hasn’t happened.”

Other counties have relied on community health partners to get vaccines more quickly. In Somerset and Aroostook counties, local hospitals got doses for the jails. In Penobscot County, a community health center has hosted two clinics inside the jail.

“I don’t know if I lay all the blame on DOC,” Aroostook County Sheriff Shawn Gillen said, referring to the Department of Corrections. “It’s probably a logistical nightmare for them as well, to find out how many vaccines each jail needs or wants, especially if it is something like Moderna that needs to be frozen. I’m not going to sit here and blame people. It’s frustrating that we’ve been asking for it for months, and thankfully, we have health care providers that are in the area that are willing to work with us when they can.”

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman said jails can obtain vaccines either through the department or a community health provider. The department had distributed roughly 75 Johnson & Johnson doses total to four jails – Androscoggin, Cumberland, Kennebec and York – by the middle of April when that vaccine was paused.

“In partnership, MDOC and Maine CDC is working to shift from Johnson & Johnson to Moderna and to make Moderna available to interested county jails,” Anna Black wrote April 16. “The Moderna vaccine requires two doses and has more specialized storage and handling requirements.”

Asked if the state has provided guidance on vaccine distribution or is requiring county jails to offer vaccines to inmates, Black said the department does not have oversight authority over jails. She referred questions about allocation requests and distribution plans to the jails themselves. She did not respond to an email or a message Friday asking for an update on the number of vaccinations at state prisons or efforts to distribute Moderna shots to the jails.

Data from the Department of Corrections shows the average daily population at the county jails in 2020 was just shy of 1,500. Nearly 1,200 – more than 80 percent – were awaiting trial and had not yet been convicted of a crime. A report posted on the department website shows more than 1,600 people were in county jails at the end of January.

Advocates have been asking the state for months to prioritize incarcerated people for vaccines, citing the higher risk of COVID-19 in congregate settings such as jails and prisons. Correctional facilities across the country have been hotspots since the early days of the pandemic, and research shows infections there quickly spread into the surrounding community. Maine’s two largest outbreaks at single sites have been at a state prison and a county jail.

“The Maine CDC has done a great job of getting vaccine in arms statewide,” Emma Bond, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said. “They have the tools to accomplish this goal. The fact that people who are in the state’s custody and who are prevented from seeking the care they need still have not been offered vaccines is unconscionable.”

While corrections officers have had access to vaccines for months, they are not required to get a shot. For example, Chief Deputy Michael Mitchell estimated roughly 30 percent of the 30 employees at the Somerset County Jail have accepted the vaccine so far. So Tina Heather Nadeau, executive director of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said people in jails still run the serious risk of exposure through an employee. She has clients at the Cumberland County Jail who have tested positive for COVID-19 during this outbreak, and she said she hasn’t been able to schedule video conferences with them because they’re in isolation.

“Incarcerated people should have been prioritized to receive the vaccine at the same time other people living in congregate settings in Maine were eligible,” she said. “The months of delay are inexcusable. The consequences of the delay in vaccinating incarcerated people is that more incarcerated people have been exposed to and have contracted COVID-19 from staff –spreading it to other incarcerated people, resulting in illness and lockdowns and transfers and extreme anxiety.”

Joyce said he felt earlier access to vaccines could have prevented the recent outbreak at the Cumberland County Jail. He had not yet sought out another provider for vaccines, but he said he wished the department was at least sharing more information about what will happen next.

“We still forget that the jail is a congregate facility,” he said. “Where is the priority on that?”

The Kennebec County Jail was going to administer its first 15 doses to its oldest prisoners the day officials paused of the Johnson & Johnson shot. Capt. Brian Slaney said they worked with the Department of Corrections to get those vaccines. He said last Tuesday they were waiting for guidance from the state, and for now, they are “on standby.”

Other sheriffs and jail administrators said they didn’t fault the Department of Corrections for delays, even if they used other sources or have started looking for them. In Somerset County, Mitchell, the chief deputy, said Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan offered up doses before the state did. They prioritized people who work with other inmates, like in the kitchen, and 10 people got shots before the Johnson & Johnson option was put on hold.

In Penobscot County, Sheriff Troy Morton said Penobscot Community Health Center has twice offered the vaccine at the jail, starting with the oldest. Twenty-six people have received shots so far. He said he wasn’t sure if earlier access would have prevented a recent outbreak of 12 cases there, but his goal was to jump on vaccines as soon as he could get them. He was working with that provider to get Moderna shots while the Johnson & Johnson ones were paused.

“We didn’t wait for the state,” Morton said.

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