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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

More Than Half Of Colorado's Prison Staff Remain Unvaccinated Against COVID-19. The State Hopes $500 Will Motivate Them

A picture of the sterling correctional facility sigh with some cell blocks in the distance.
Henry Zimmerman
Sterling Correctional Facility is the largest prison in the state. It's also one of the largest outbreak sites.

Correctional staff have been able to get a COVID-19 vaccine since January under the state's phase system. Less than half of the more than 6,000 workers have gotten one dose of the vaccine so far.

“I'm a bit concerned because I want a higher up and uptake of the vaccine than what we're getting,” said Colorado Department of Corrections executive director Dean Williams.

In some cases, thedepartmenthas said its own staff were “likely” responsible for bringing the virus from their communities into prisons leading to massive outbreaks that, statewide, infected about 8,800 inmates and led to 29 deaths among incarcerated people.

As vaccination opens up to everyone in the general public, including all incarcerated people, the department is offering staff a $500 incentive to get vaccinated. Everyone who has already been fully inoculated qualifies for this incentive too.

“We're doing this because I want to advance vaccinations of our staff as fast as possible,” Williams said. “Doing so not only saves lives, but quite frankly, in the long run, it allows us to get back to normal prison operations and actually, believe it or not, saves money.”

If every correctional officer gets their shots, the incentive could cost the department around $3.1 million. That’s a “great problem to have,” Williams said, because the pandemic has been costlier. Overtime to make up for sick or quarantining staff alone has cost the department millions of dollars, he said.

“So this really is our major effort to get the staff vaccinated because it actually makes economic sense in the long run and avoids the real possibility still that we will have death beyond the walls if I don't get my staff vaccinated,” he added.

The department has also saved money on programs and trainings it couldn’t safely operate during the pandemic, Williams said. Between that andfederal COVID relief dollars, he doesn’t expect the cost of the incentive to impact programs going forward. Some money was also saved through staff furloughs, though a majority of workers were exempt from that.

The $500 incentive is somewhatunique. Several large companies and even some school districts are offering staff vaccination incentives as well, but most don’t offer more than $100. The amount was chosen to ensure the incentive would be enough to “move the dial” for people who were on the fence about getting inoculated.

People with “valid” religious or medical exemptions to the vaccine will still be able to get the bonus, Williams said, because it’s the right thing to do, “morally” and “legally.”

Some public health and legalexperts worry monetary incentives could be too coercive, especially for people in poverty. Some say it may even backfire and cause people to trust the vaccines less.

“If what we find is that perhaps a financial incentive for people living in poverty has them making choices that they might not otherwise make and we have to be concerned about, is that actually ethical and is that fair?” Dr. Mark Wallace, chief clinical officer of Sunrise Community Health Clinics and medical director of the Northern Colorado Health Alliance, said in a January interview.

Research on the effects of vaccine incentives is limited, but what does exist has foundsimilar concerns.

“I would say it's certainly more persuasive,” Williams said in response to coerciveness worries. “I think the department and the state has the legal authority, and I think we have the obligation to protect the people who are in our custody by virtue of paying this incentive.”

The department is not planning to mandate the vaccine for the time being.

“I want to give this (incentive) an opportunity to work and we'll revisit any of those decisions once we see where we land,” Williams said.

In November, CDOC settled a lawsuitwith the American Civil Liberties Union that alleged the department was failing to protect medically vulnerable inmates. The settlement required the department to give incarcerated people free masks and soap, perform regular surveillance testing and audit each facility’s COVID-19 protocols, among other provisions. CDOC said it had already been taking many of those steps since the pandemic’s early months.

“29 deaths is 29 too many,” Williams said, noting, however, that the mortality rate from the virus in Colorado’s prisons is lower than the general public.

“I don't say that with any bravado or any great pride,” he added. “We still lost 29 men to the pandemic.”

“We did a lot of right things,” Williams said when discussing how the department has handled the pandemic over the past year. He pointed to aggressive testing, stopping intakes and movement between facilities and careful monitoring of inmate symptoms.

Still, infections soared in the last months of 2020, particularly at Sterling Correctional Facility where total infections doubled from 742 inmate cases in mid-November to 1,512 in late January. That facility makes up the majority of the department’s deaths, with 10 incarcerated people who died.

Spread seems to be greatly reduced now. There are only eight correctional facilities still under heavily modified operations to prevent further spread of the coronavirus withjust 58 active cases between them. Some of the bigger outbreak sites, like Sterling Correctional, are considered "resolved" by the state. More than 7,000 current and former inmates have been vaccinated in the state’s private and publicly run prisons.

Many of Colorado's correctional facilities are in counties that are now at the lowest level of the state’s COVID restriction “dial” system due to dropping case numbers. The state now allows those counties to have reduced mask requirements and more capacity in some businesses. Though, masks will still be required in the prisons.

As KUNC’s rural and small communities reporter, I help further the newsroom’s efforts to ensure that all of Northern Colorado’s communities are heard.
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