US prison guards refusing vaccine despite COVID-19 outbreaks

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Kareen Troitino stands outside the Federal Corrections Institution, Friday, March 12, 2021, in Miami. Troitino, a local correction's officer union president, said that fewer than half of the facility's 240 employees have been fully vaccinated as of March 11. Many of the workers who refused had expressed concerns about the vaccines efficacy and side effects, Troitino said. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

A Florida correctional officer polled his colleagues earlier this year in a private Facebook group: “Will you take the COVID-19 vaccine if offered?”

The answer from more than half: “Hell no.” Only 40 of the 475 respondents said yes.

In Massachusetts, more than half the people employed by the Department of Correction declined to be immunized. A statewide survey in California showed that half of all correction employees will wait to be vaccinated. In Rhode Island, 30% of prison staff have refused the vaccine, a higher rate than the incarcerated, according to the state’s Department of Corrections. And in Iowa, early polling among employees showed a little more than half the staff said they’d get vaccinated.

As states have begun COVID-19 inoculations at prisons across the country, corrections employees are refusing vaccines at alarming rates, causing some public health experts to worry about the prospect of controlling the pandemic both inside and outside. Infection rates in prisons are more than three times as high as in the general public. Prison staff helped accelerate outbreaks by refusing to wear masks, downplaying people’s symptoms, and haphazardly enforcing social distancing and hygiene protocols in confined, poorly ventilated spaces ripe for viral spread.

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This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Marshall Project exploring the state of the prison system in the coronavirus pandemic. Nicole Lewis, Beth Schwartzapfel and Tom Meagher reported for The Marshall Project.

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The Marshall Project and The Associated Press spoke with correctional officers and union leaders nationwide, as well as with public health experts and doctors working inside prisons, to understand why officers are declining to be vaccinated, despite being at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Many employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared they would lose their jobs if they spoke out.