While Oklahoma has administered more than 500,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine since December, jails and prisons, which have cultivated some of the state’s biggest outbreaks of the disease, are still on the waiting list.
Oklahoma health officials don’t know yet when jails and prisons will receive the vaccine or how many doses will be available because of the state’s uncertain supply, Keith Reed, deputy commissioner for the Oklahoma State Department of Health said in an email to The Frontier.
Jails and prisons are included in the second tier of the state’s vaccination plan, behind school teachers and staff.
The coronavirus spread rapidly through the state’s prison system last summer and fall, causing many facilities to go on lock down.
The virus infected hundreds of men and women serving time in minimum security facilities with open dormitories.
About one-third of the state’s prison population, nearly 7,000 prisoners, have tested positive for COVID-19 and 46 have died since April 2020.
While more than 40 percent of Oklahomans over age 65 have already received at least one dose of the vaccine, it hasn’t been made available to aging prisoners in the state correctional system.
There are about 1,800 prisoners over age 60 in state prisons, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
The ACLU of Oklahoma has called on the state to give prisoners a higher priority in its vaccination plan.
The virus can spread rapidly among prisoners with limited access to cleaning supplies, said Nicole McAfee, director of policy and advocacy for the ACLU.
Outbreaks can also breach prison walls and spread to the wider community when staff are infected, she said.
“As much as I want folks to care about the the health and humanity of each of the people incarcerated in those facilities, I think if nothing else, people also have to realize that any sort of COVID outbreak in a prison or jail has has a much bigger impact outside of that facility” she said.
The Department of Corrections plans to prioritize older prisoners and other high-risk groups to receive the vaccine once it becomes available, said Justin Wolf, a spokesman for the agency.
“But if we get enough for everybody who wants to have it, there’s no issue of prioritization at all,” he said.
About 11,000 prisoners, a little more than half of the state’s prison population have expressed an interest in receiving the vaccine, he said.
County jails officials in Canadian, Tulsa, Cleveland and Comanche counties contacted by The Frontier all said they planned to make the vaccine available to prisoners who wanted it, but didn’t know when that would occur.
Jim Gerlach, administrator for the Grady County jail in Chickasha, where at least one prisoner has died of COVID-19, said the jail can’t force detainees to take the vaccine. He anticipates many prisoners will turn it down because of general mistrust for the vaccine and prison staff.
“You’ve got to remember who’s giving the immunization — they’re doing it under duress, they’re in jail,” he said.