Just 7% of Wisconsin prisoners have received COVID-19 vaccine, despite outcry over inmates being prioritized

Even as Wisconsin has expanded eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone 16 and older, one group is lagging far behind others: prisoners.

Fewer than 1,400 prisoners in the state had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday, even though state officials prioritized inmates for vaccine access due to concerns about widespread outbreaks in prisons.

Just 1,382 prisoners incarcerated in state Department of Corrections facilities had received at least one dose of vaccine as of Monday, online records show. That’s only about 7% of the population of some 19,470 prisoners incarcerated in Wisconsin — far behind the 33% of the state’s general population that as of Monday had received at least one dose of vaccine. 

Prisoners and others in congregate living facilities were prioritized by state officials as part of “Phase 1B” of Wisconsin’s rollout. That means people who are incarcerated have been eligible to get doses of COVID-19 vaccine since March 1.

Track COVID and the vaccine in Wisconsin: See the latest data on cases, deaths and administered doses

Wisconsin vaccine FAQ: Who’s eligible, where to get it and what’s next

The decision to prioritize prisoners was heavily criticized by Republican lawmakers, some of whom warned that prisoners would be able to get doses of vaccine before grandmothers. That didn’t happen — those 65 and over became eligible in late January.

John Beard, a corrections agency spokesman, said DOC prioritized prisoners who were 65 or older, as well as those with chronic health conditions that put them at greater risk of complications from COVID-19, so they were vaccinated first.

“As we receive vaccine for persons in our care, we are administering the doses as quickly as possible,” Beard said in an email.

There have so far been 10,931 cases of COVID-19 among Wisconsin prisoners, and 26 people incarcerated at DOC facilities have died. As of Thursday, there were 15 active cases, 22 people in isolation and 1,006 in quarantine, according to the DOC website.

Advocates for incarcerated people and public health experts argue that vaccinating prisoners is an important step to protect not just prisoners and corrections staff but also the general population since outbreaks that start inside prisons can easily spread outside. 

The state also has a legal obligation to provide health care to inmates and could face lawsuits if that care is deficient.

Tim Muth, staff attorney for ACLU of Wisconsin, noted that the group has been very critical of corrections officials’ approach to the pandemic “in terms of not getting people who are at particular risk out of prisons where possible.”

“The one thing that seemed to be a thing they were doing right was having the incarcerated population up on the priority list of eligibility in the state, and yet it looks from these numbers like they’re clearly not following through the prioritization that they established,” Muth said. “And that’s very disappointing.”

Beard said that DOC is working with state health officials and “anticipates receiving additional doses in the coming weeks and vaccinating more persons in our care.”

He said prisoners who are 65 and older and those with chronic health conditions that may make them more susceptible to severe COVID-19 symptoms are “two relatively small groups of our population.”

“As we continue to receive more doses, vaccination will be offered to larger groups of persons in our care,” Beard said.

Dipesh Navsaria, a physician who serves as an affiliate faculty member for Population Health Sciences at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, said prisoners are often at higher risk for a couple of reasons.

“They disproportionately come from communities that have generally been more deeply affected by COVID due to stress, poverty, racism and discrimination,” he said. “The second thing is that most correctional facilities are group facilities. There’s a lot more contact. Social distancing is extremely challenging to do.”

//Navsaria said prisoners getting vaccinated will protect everyone.

//“We should be viewing whenever someone else gets immunized — particularly people that are at higher risk for spreading it to one another in correctional settings — or anywhere else, we should view that as an entry for society, because the less spread there is out there in general, the safer we all are,” he said. “So some of this, I think, understandable feeling of who’s being prioritized and who’s getting it first, sort of misunderstands that when someone else is immunized, we’re all safer.”

Variants of the coronavirus spreading in prisons have also become a major concern.

The Detroit Free Press reported late last month that nearly 40% of B.1.1.7 cases, a more contagious strain first identified in the United Kingdom, were associated with outbreaks at Michigan prisons. 

Vaccination rates among prisoners have been lagging around the country. Less than 20% of state and federal prisoners have been vaccinated, according to a recent report by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. In some states, prisoners and advocates have resorted to lawsuits to get access.

And other states have reported high vaccine refusal rates among prisoners.

In Wisconsin, correctional workers — who became eligible along with police officers and firefighters in mid-January — have much higher vaccination rates than inmates.

More than 4,100 correctional staffers have been vaccinated, Beard said. 

He added that local health departments are the primary vaccinator for correctional staffers, so most are being vaccinated outside the workplace and the number of workers who’ve gotten a shot is likely higher.

“DOC is working with local health departments and private pharmacies to gather information about local vaccination opportunities and share with staff at our offices and institutions across the state,” Beard said.

Contact Mary Spicuzza at (414) 224-2324 or mary.spicuzza@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MSpicuzzaMJS.