Prison staff in Maine got very early access to COVID-19 shots, but their vaccination rate still lags far behind the state as a whole. People incarcerated in the state’s prisons, who had to wait for shots, have gotten them at a higher rate than not only their guards but also the general population.

Maine prisons and jails have been hit by 28 virus outbreaks during the pandemic – 18 since January, when officers became eligible for vaccines.

Corrections workers move between the locked buildings and the wider world, where they run a greater risk of exposure. Which begs the question: Why doesn’t Gov. Janet Mills require them to get vaccines just like health care workers?

The governor’s vaccine mandate does not apply to people who work inside prisons and jails, even those who provide medical care, and her office hasn’t explained why. A spokeswoman said the mandate is grounded in existing law that applies only in certain health care settings, but she did not answer a question about whether the governor has the authority to make such a rule for corrections officers as well.

Public sector employees in Maine will fall under the workplace vaccine-or-test requirement announced by the Biden administration, but it is still not clear when that requirement will take effect and whether all corrections workers will fall under it.

“Let’s just face it,” said Joseph Jackson, executive director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, which aims to improve conditions in the prison system. “We’re continuing to see outbreaks in jails and our prison facilities, and we have seen them throughout the pandemic. We know the correctional officers are the way that it’s going to get inside.”

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The state prisons have reported a dozen outbreaks since March 2020. The county jails, whose populations see more turnover, have reported 16.

At the Cumberland County Jail, a recent outbreak prompted a lockdown that curtailed programs and confined those in custody to their cells for more than 23 hours a day. In mid-October, the sheriff there reported that 40 percent of inmates and about 50 percent of staff were vaccinated. But it’s difficult to track overall vaccination rates in the jails because the state doesn’t seem to be collecting that data.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention couldn’t provide the number of cases for outbreaks in county jails, but in state prisons, the more recent ones have been much smaller in scale than those in 2020.

LARGEST OUTBREAKS AT PRISON, JAIL

Since the start of the pandemic, the largest outbreaks reported in Maine have been at a state prison and a county jail. One man in his 40s who contracted COVID-19 at the York County Jail last year later died from a stroke, and the medical examiner’s office found the virus was a factor. Also last year, a man in his 70s died from COVID-19 while he was incarcerated at the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston.

When corrections officers became eligible for their vaccines in January, Mills said for them to get the shots was “first and foremost important.” Even the oldest incarcerated people didn’t have access to them until late March.

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The Maine Department of Corrections reported this week that more than 1,300 out of 1,600 prisoners are fully vaccinated. The average vaccination rate across the five prisons was 83 percent. The highest was 93 percent at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, and the lowest was 62 percent at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

In contrast, the overall vaccination rate for facility staff is 67 percent. The department did not break that percentage down by location. The probation staff, who make up a separate group of department employees, has a higher rate of 83 percent.

In Maine as a whole, nearly 78 percent of people over 12 years old have received their final dose of the vaccine. That rate varies across the state. Cumberland County has the highest vaccination rate at 89 percent; Somerset County has the lowest at 64 percent.

The data from Maine reflects a national trend identified by the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Project, which collects a wide range of data about coronavirus in correctional facilities.

“What we’re seeing is, by and large, incarcerated people are doing all the right things,” said Josh Manson, communications director for the project. “They are taking the right steps. It’s the staff, the people who are paid by taxpayers and who are supposed to be looking after incarcerated people, who are exposing them to the virus and prolonging the pandemic needlessly.”

STRESSFUL LOCKDOWNS

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Manson pointed to a study by the national CDC at an unnamed federal prison in Texas. Nearly 80 percent of the prisoners were vaccinated, while nearly two-thirds of the staff were not. The study found that vaccines reduced the risk of hospitalization and death in that setting, even though the virus still spread into a massive outbreak that infected dozens of people. Manson said such outbreaks often result in stressful lockdowns – like the recent one at Cumberland County Jail.

It is too soon to see whether vaccine mandates for corrections officers could improve those conditions, Manson said, but he believes states should pursue that option.

“Frankly, nothing else has worked,” he said. “Prison staff from the outset have had prioritized access to vaccines, access that the general public didn’t even have. A lot of prison staff unions sought out earlier access, recognizing that they work in high-risk environments. They generally got that access that they asked for, but we’re still seeing vaccination rates under 50 percent in a lot of places.”

Mills required health care workers in hospitals, nursing homes, dentist offices and other facilities to get vaccines. A small number of states have imposed COVID-19 vaccine mandates for guards, but unions have fought them in court.

For example, in California, a federal judge ordered last month that all prison employees and some inmates should get vaccinated unless they have a medical or religious reason not to. State officials and the officers’ union are opposing that plan over fears that many guards would quit.

In Massachusetts, the governor imposed a mandate for corrections officers that allows for personal, medical or religious exemptions. The union there also sued, and a federal judge denied its request to block the mandate. The union has appealed.

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Oregon’s governor announced a sweeping mandate for state workers, and a federal judge rejected an emergency attempt to carve out an exception for people who already have contracted COVID-19. The state’s Department of Corrections has nearly 4,500 employees. Data posted on its website shows that nearly 900 requested an exemption for religious or medical reasons, and another 224 employees are not compliant. Those numbers put the vaccination rate at nearly 75 percent.

Jackson, of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said he asked the Department of Corrections about a mandate for corrections officers this year and heard that the state would expect pushback from the unions. But he said that step might be necessary to boost the vaccination rate among corrections officers in Maine.

“We’ve tried everything else at this point,” he said.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93 represents approximately 2,600 public sector workers in Maine. Six hundred members work in state prisons and four of the county jails. Mark Bernard, executive director, has said a majority have already received a COVID-19 shot, but he also believes policy on vaccinations should be established through negotiation with the union.

“While a majority of our members may have already received a vaccination, many others have understandable concerns that we believe should be addressed in advance of any policy implementation,” Bernard said in a written statement. “As such, we urge all governmental leaders to work with us to reach a mutually agreeable policy on vaccinations, including providing a regular testing option to provide our members who – for any number of reasons – are opposed to mandatory vaccinations as a condition of employment. Should we be unable to achieve that goal, we will be reviewing all of our options under the law.”

Anna Black, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, did not say why the state has not imposed a vaccine mandate on corrections officers. Instead, she said public sector employees in Maine will be subject to the Biden workplace mandate. That isn’t true for every state, but Maine has an agreement with the federal government that requires the adoption of all Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

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AWAITING MANDATE DETAILS

The Biden mandate will apply to employers with more than 100 workers. But it is not yet clear when it will take effect or how it will impact prisons and jails. For example, the government hasn’t said whether all county employees will be viewed as one group, or if staff at individual jails will be counted as separate units. If that is the case, many jails, including the Cumberland County Jail, might not meet that threshold. The Department of Corrections has more than 1,000 employees, plus another 240 contracted staff.

“We are awaiting the final rule from OSHA, which is in development, so the time frame and details of its implementation are unknown at this time,” Black wrote in an email.

Currently, the Maine CDC is reporting open outbreaks at five county jails: Aroostook, Cumberland, Penobscot, Somerset and Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset.

In Penobscot County, Sheriff Troy Morton said 70 percent of the staff and 50 percent of the inmates have been vaccinated, although the latter number can fluctuate as people are booked and released. He also said more than half of the people infected in the outbreak were vaccinated.

Asked whether he believes corrections officers should be required to get shots, Morton said he believes individuals should be given the opportunity to make their own medical decisions. The sheriff himself said he got his two doses of the Moderna shot and then a booster.

“We provide staff and inmates with proper PPE, screenings, additional cleaning and reduction of movement in order to prevent additional exposures,” he wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, in an overcrowded and outdated facility, separation and other best practices are a greater challenge.”

Ten inmates at the Penobscot County Jail are currently in isolation after testing positive. Two staff members are hospitalized with the virus. Morton said it would be inappropriate for him to say whether they have been vaccinated.

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