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After months of widespread outbreaks, Oregon prisons reach 70% vaccination rate

Oregon prisons were home to some of the most prolific COVID-19 outbreaks last year. Now, prisons have a better vaccination rate than the general population.

SALEM, Ore — For months, Oregon prisons were a hotbed for COVID-19 outbreaks, spreading quickly among one of the state's most vulnerable populations living in tight quarters.

The virus claimed the lives of 42 adults in custody (AICs), and more than 3,600 others were at one time infected. More than 870 staff members at Oregon prisons have gotten the virus.

As of May 17, 2021 there are only 16 cases across the state's prison system, which includes 12,200 total people in custody. Almost all of those cases are in the Coffee Creek Intake Center, which is the first stop for people sentenced to prison.

According to the Department of Corrections, no inmates have died from COVID since February. 

So how did we get here?

Following a lawsuit, a judge ordered the state to immediately start vaccinating all inmates in February ahead of seniors and the general public. 

According to a DOC spokesperson, all inmates have been offered the vaccine so far, and 70% of them have been vaccinated. Initially, the DOC distributed Moderna vaccines, and then transitioned to the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

"A lot of that has to do with our outreach engagement education, and really continuing to engage our AICs moving forward. And so we've been able to have a much higher acceptance rate than you see in some communities," said ODOC Medical Director Dr. Warren Roberts. "We also are offering our AICs an ability to meet with a provider to discuss their concerns privately. And so they may have fears and anxieties, and we encourage them. If they decide to opt out to not obtain the vaccine, they can still come back at a later date and have a one-on-one conversation with their provider." 

As for prison staff, the numbers are bit harder to pin down. According to a spokesperson, about half of their staff has received the vaccine at on-site clinics, but there are "many more" employees who got the vaccine elsewhere.

"From what we're hearing on the inside, there are still guards or other staff members who express their skepticism about the vaccine or who are spreading rumors. And unfortunately, in an environment where there isn't enough positive reinforcement of good health facts, rumors spread like wildfire," Juan Chavez with the OJRC told KGW Tuesday.

Willamette Week published a similar report back in March. Lawyers said prison staff told women at Coffee Creek that vaccines would cause infertility, which is not true.

We asked Dr. Roberts how the DOC plans on stopping those rumors from spreading. 

"The number one tool to use for misinformation is education and engagement, and making sure that everyone is on the same page and everyone knows what the risks and benefits of being vaccinated," he said. "The more that we're talking and engaging with our AICs... it's not being done in a vacuum. That's being done around staff members and DOC employees. The information that we're sharing is free. So if people come up and ask health services, our nursing staff or our nurse managers, we provide information. If it could help someone make a decision, we support it."

Dr. Roberts also said vaccine acceptance rates are fairly similar between prison facilities, even in rural eastern Oregon counties where the vaccination rates for the general public are low. He said vaccine hesitancy is most prevalent among BIPOC inmates.

"That's something that we take very seriously and we're going to continue to engage and educate that particular population of people," Dr. Roberts said. "We're reaching out to our BIPOC population to answer their questions specifically, and to see if we can learn more about what is causing what's driving their hesitancy and see if we can address it. That's something that I plan to do at our institutions moving forward, because it is a reality and it's something that we can't ignore."

Chavez said vaccine hesitancy among inmates is often related to distrust of prison employees.

"The people who are in charge of your health and wellbeing are also in charge of punishing you. I mean, those two facets of they're taking care of you, but they're also punishing you makes people actually distrustful of the folks who are administering this stuff," he said.

Earlier this month, OJRC filed a class-action lawsuit seeking damages for Oregon inmates infected with COVID-19, as well as wrongful death claims for those who died from the virus while in prison.

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