AUGUSTA, Maine — Some Maine jails have administered the COVID-19 vaccine to more than 70 percent of incarcerated populations while at least one has yet to vaccinate inmates at all as correctional facilities continue to see some of the state’s largest outbreaks.
Nursing homes and most other congregate facilities were included as part of the first phase of Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout last December. Despite the federal government recommending prison staff and populations be vaccinated at the same time, Maine did not offer vaccines to incarcerated people until March, while staff were part of an initial phase.
More than five months after Maine began administering the COVID-19 vaccine, the majority of correctional facilities have yet to vaccinate more than half of their incarcerated populations in a patchy system across the state. At the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, the site of a recent outbreak, incarcerated people have not been offered vaccines at all.
Law enforcement officials say low supply, the transient nature of county jails and — in some cases — low uptake have kept vaccination rates at correctional facilities below the state average. It comes as vaccines for the general public have become so easy to get that mass sites are winding down and others are increasingly offering walk-in shots.
Jails and prisons have accounted for some of the largest outbreaks in Maine over the past few months, including one that infected 67 at the Cumberland County Jail in April. A March outbreak at the Maine State Prison in Warren led to 15 cases, while more than two dozen at the Maine Correctional Center women’s prison in Windham tested positive for the virus as of last week.
Maine has had the fewest COVID-19 cases in state prisons of any state, according to the Marshall Project. That does not include county jails. Jails and prisons are vulnerable to outbreaks because populations live in close quarters, with multiple people sharing rooms and toilet facilities. At the beginning of the pandemic, nearly half of the state’s prison population was at risk of severe illness if it got the virus, according to Department of Corrections officials.
Across Maine’s prison system, just 17 percent of incarcerated people got a final COVID-19 vaccine dose as of April 30, according to the corrections department, compared to 61 percent of staff. The state declined to provide a breakdown of vaccinations by facility.
The situation has frustrated prison reform advocates who pushed for incarcerated people to be vaccinated early on. American Civil Liberties Union of Maine lawyer Emma Bond, who represented two men who unsuccessfully sued the state last year for early release because their health conditions put them at risk of getting more severe COVID-19, said the conditions that put those men at risk have not changed since, including isolation from limited visitation.
“From Day One, the government should have prioritized people who are incarcerated with others who live in congregate settings,” Bond said.
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Nirav Shah defended the state’s approach to vaccinations on Tuesday, saying some jails might have relationships with local providers to help get populations immunized quickly. He said all people in the state prison system will be offered a vaccine by the end of this week. A corrections department spokesperson noted the push on resident vaccines and said the state will continue to work to ensure the infection rate remains low compared to other states.
But things are uneven in county jails. Since they mostly contain people awaiting trial, high turnover provides more opportunities for COVID-19 to enter a facility and makes it more difficult for officials to keep up with vaccinating people.
Among the jails that responded to a Bangor Daily News survey about the frequency of clinics and staff and inmate vaccination rates, staff vaccination rates ranged from about 25 percent in Oxford County and Two Bridges which covers Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, to upward of 70 percent in Kennebec and Piscataquis counties.
Piscataquis County also reported the highest vaccination rate among inmates at 71 percent. But at Two Bridges, where 30 people tested positive for the virus last week, the vaccine has not been offered yet. Four other jails saw less than a quarter of their inmates vaccinated as of earlier this week, though several were planning to offer more vaccines this week.
Officials pointed to the federal pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as several jails put off planned clinics while the vaccine’s safety was under review. The one-shot vaccine is preferred by many officials as it removes logistical concerns about administering a second dose several weeks later to someone who has been released from jail.
Some jails have had more success. The Aroostook County Jail partnered with Houlton Regional Hospital to vaccinate both its staff and incarcerated population after receiving little information about a plan to get vaccines from the Maine Department of Corrections, said Sheriff Shawn Gillen. With the hospital’s help, the jail has now vaccinated 60 percent of staff and 48 percent of inmates and plans to continue to provide vaccines as requested, Gillen said.
The state missed an opportunity to clamp down on prison outbreaks early on when it began offering vaccines, said Joseph Jackson, who directs the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. He said Maine prisons and jails should have offered a variety of vaccines and offer incentives to staff to get vaccinated, since they are most likely to bring the virus in.
Maine will now have to gain the trust of a population that has a history of mistrusting officials, which he said can make providing health care difficult. Lower rates of staff vaccination are also causing wariness, he said.
“So it’s like when they do, all of a sudden, start offering services, people look at them like, ‘Why now?’” Jackson said. “‘If it’s not safe for you, why should it be safe for me?’”