New Hampshire’s county jails are rolling out COVID-19 vaccinations to inmates, after a year in which numerous outbreaks have struck correctional facilities here and across the U.S.
Doug Iosue, the superintendent of the Cheshire County jail in Keene, said the facility administered its first 10 doses to inmates Thursday.
“It’s sort of a ray of hope,” he said. “… I hope this will only continue to help us to be well-protected here.”
All 10 of New Hampshire’s county jails have access to vaccines, and their populations have been fully eligible since the state expanded vaccination registration. Jail officials say they’re now contending with some of the same challenges as the national vaccination campaign, including vaccine hesitancy and the Johnson & Johnson pause, along with factors unique to correctional settings.
Like other congregate-living settings, jails and prisons have been hit hard by the pandemic. At least 394,000 coronavirus cases have been reported among state and federal prisoners nationwide, and more than 2,500 have died, according to data gathered by the news outlet The Marshall Project.
In New Hampshire, health officials have reported 14 outbreaks at 11 local, state and federal correctional institutions linked to nearly 900 resident cases and more than 200 staff cases as of Thursday. Three state prisoners have died from COVID-19 since March 2020, according to N.H. Department of Corrections data.
The Cheshire County jail has had three confirmed staff cases and no known cases among inmates, Iosue said.
New Hampshire opened vaccines to correctional workers in January, as part of its vaccination plan’s Phase 1b, but didn’t create a separate category for inmates. That meant they became eligible at the same time as the general population, based on their age and medical conditions. All New Hampshire adults are now eligible.
The state prison system, which is separate from the county jails, began vaccinating its residents in February based on those phases, according to spokeswoman Tina Thurber. Vaccines have now been offered to nearly all people in state prisons, she said, and more than 1,100 out of a total population of about 2,000 have had at least one shot, according to the department’s latest data.
Similarly, Merrimack County jail Superintendent Ross Cunningham said his facility’s first inmates were vaccinated in January, through a partnership with the Capital Area Public Health Network. Additional vaccine clinics were held in February and this past week.
Officials at several other jails said they started inoculating inmates this month or plan to do so soon, after training medical staff and completing the state approval process to become vaccine providers.
The recent pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — as recommended by federal regulators after reports that a small number of recipients had developed a rare and serious type of blood clot — was a snag for several jails planning to start vaccinations.
That included Rockingham County, which had planned to administer its first doses of Johnson & Johnson this past week. Now, Superintendent Jason Henry said, “the state is shipping us the Moderna vaccine next week.”
Cheshire County was also slated to get Johnson & Johnson, but managed to stay on track after the state sent it Moderna doses Wednesday, Iosue said.
Unlike state prisons, jails typically house people for short periods of time and see a lot of turnover. Iosue said Johnson & Johnson is better in that setting because it requires only one shot.
“Given the inmate length of stay being very unpredictable — either short and/or unpredictable — and wanting to ensure they would get fully vaccinated, the one-dose approach was something that made sense to us,” Iosue said.
But he said he still wants to start people on a two-shot vaccine, because the first shot offers at least some protection. People released before their second shot can make an appointment at a community vaccine site, like the one on Krif Road in Keene, by calling 211 or visiting vaccines.nh.gov.
“There’s one potential myth … that if the person’s not going to be there to get a second dose of the vaccine, then they shouldn’t be started,” said Beth Daly, the chief of the N.H. Bureau of Infectious Disease Control. “And that’s not the case, we do want them to go ahead and start the vaccination series.”
Officials are also confronting vaccine hesitancy among some inmates. While Sullivan County jail Superintendent Dave Berry estimated that more than 75 percent of inmates there want the vaccine — which should arrive next week — officials at several other institutions said they were seeing much lower signup rates so far. Iosue said that as of Thursday, 22 out of the Cheshire County jail’s population of roughly 100 had decided to get vaccinated.
Henry said 40 to 45 Rockingham County jail residents want a vaccine so far, out of about 130 total. But he thinks those numbers will go up as they see more of their fellow inmates get vaccinated.
“Right now, I don’t blame them,” he said. “They’re a very suspicious population — they’re in here.”
He and other jail officials said their staffs are talking to residents about the benefits of vaccination and distributing promotional materials.
Daly said state officials are working to address vaccine hesitancy in jails. That includes distributing a video covering the importance of vaccines and debunking common myths.
“We recognize that this is a vulnerable population,” she said. “We want people to get vaccinated. We hope that through some of the messaging we’re doing in partnership with the institutions themselves that the residents will be able to listen to the information … and will make that choice to get vaccinated so they can be protected.”