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Vaccine Hesitancy Among Oklahoma Guards And Inmates Could Threaten State Prisons

A healthcare worker fills a syringe with the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine.
Whitney Bryen
Oklahoma Watch
A healthcare worker fills a syringe with the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine.

About two-thirds of Oklahoma prison workers and just under half of the inmates have opted not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine from the state Department of Corrections, a sign that vaccine hesitancy remains high and some facilities may not reach the immunity threshold necessary to prevent future outbreaks.

In a Wednesday Board meeting, corrections director Scott Crow said that the agency expects to distribute vaccine doses to 1,500 corrections staff and 12,000 prisoners through the end of April. The corrections department employs about 4,500 and houses just under 22,000 inmates.

Prison medical staff began vaccinating corrections workers in late January, while inmates have been eligible to receive the vaccine since March 8. 

Corrections department spokesman Justin Wolf said the staff vaccination total does not include employees who decided to get inoculated at off-site pharmacies or vaccine pods. Wolf said the agency has encouraged its staff to get vaccinated wherever it’s available and most convenient, but it cannot compel staff to provide proof of off-site vaccination.  

Most state corrections systems are not mandating the vaccine for staff or inmates. Some states have used incentives, like reinstating in-person visitation if a certain percentage of prisoners get vaccinated, as a way to encourage vaccination. 

Some of Oklahoma’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks have spread from state prisons, where many inmates live in dormitory-style housing units not conducive to social distancing. When an outbreak hit the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft in early September, Muskogee County ranked first among U.S. metropolitan areas with the most new COVID-19 cases.

Since April, more than 1,000 staff and 7,300 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. At least 44 prisoners have died. 

At least 15 states, including Oklahoma, have prioritized vaccination for corrections staff ahead of inmates, arguing that they may introduce the virus to both inmate populations and nearby communities. But prison workers nationwide are showing resistance to the vaccine. In North Carolina, 65% of prison staff said in a February survey that they would not be getting vaccinated. A group of Nevada corrections officers told a legislative committee in December that they would rather quit than get inoculated. 

The problem isn’t unique to prisons. Police officersfirefighters and emergency responders in several states have rejected the vaccine at a greater rate than the general public. Polling indicates that Republicans without college degrees, a group often drawn to law enforcement and corrections work, are among the most likely to decline vaccination. Experts say misinformation and conspiracy theories about the vaccine could be contributing to the hesitancy. 

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