Prisoner vaccination rates low after ‘pause’ to rollout while staff vaxxing beyond national average

The “pause” on providing Covid-19 vaccinations for inmates when supplies ran tight is revealed in new data showing a huge disparity between prisoners and those running our prisons.

At every prison except one, the number of Corrections officers vaccinated outnumber inmates – even though the actual population balance is reversed.

The exception is Auckland South Corrections Facility in Wiri where more inmates than Corrections’ staff have had both jabs.

It reflects the decision to focus the slowed vaccination effort on places where an outbreak might be expected. In contrast, the latest numbers from August 30 show no prisoners at Invercargill Prison had been vaccinated.

The need to vaccinate those detained or working in prisons has been emphasised by experts who point to examples overseas where they are the centre of significant Covid-19 outbreaks.

In the first six months of the pandemic in the United States, the 15 biggest outbreaks were centred on prisons. With fluid movements between prisons and the community, from staff to released prisoners, prisons create a close-quarters incubation setting and a means for transmission to wider society.

The Corrections vaccine rollout began in May and – until August 30 – had given 4116 prison staff two doses of the vaccine. Over the same period, 1151 inmates from a population of 8200 received both jabs – about 14 per cent.

Outside prisons, the wider eligible population was 62 per cent dosed with one jab and 32 per cent with both shots.

Prisoners were designated as “Group 3” when the vaccine rollout began. Those inmates in higher risk areas – like South Auckland – have since been classified as “Group 2” along with frontline health workers and those living or working in long-term residential care.

Corrections staff working in prisons across the country were part of the “Group 2” vaccination focus.

A smooth rollout was thwarted when the flow of vaccine supplies stuttered in June. Vaccination of inmates, and others including Defence Force personnel, was delayed.

A Corrections spokeswoman said the decision to “slow the roll-out” was made by the Ministry of Health “to manage stocks of the vaccine in the lead up to new vaccine deliveries”.

The decision stopped vaccinations of prisoners on June 14 for more than a month. It started again in late July.

All prisons were offering the vaccine to newly arrived prisoners. If they declined at that point, they and other inmates who had previously refused would be approached again and asked to consider the vaccine.

Last week, Corrections went into alert after a staff member at Spring Hill prison in Waikato returned a positive test. It led to Corrections locking down about 120 inmates in the area where the officer worked and restrictions across the prison.

Victoria University criminologist Dr Liam Martin has told the Herald factors that amplified the spread of the virus were “magnified” in prisons.

“When there’s an outbreak in a prison, it affects everyone. Prisons become a hub. The epicentre of the pandemic in the US is the prisons. It seems like one big blind spot of the government’s approach.”

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