Across the country and here in Illinois, decisions are being made about who gets vaccinated and when. In this process, there has been some public outrage over the inoculations of the detainees. While this is understandable on some level, it is, in fact, counterproductive. Immunizing inmates, healthcare professionals and correctional officers is an important step in containing COVID and saving lives.
Every working day, I walk into my health care clinic, determined to do everything in my power to help contain and treat COVID-19 among my patients, who are all inmates. I am one of tens of thousands of correctional nurses nationwide who work behind walls in some of the largest gathering places in the United States. There is an urgent need to include workplaces like mine in the planning and execution of vaccine distribution.
In Colorado, a recently released, revised version of the state vaccination plan eliminates incarcerated individuals from any particular phase of immunization due to the perceived controversy of inmate immunization in the public eye. For those outside of correctional health care, this is understandable. But the facts make this decision unfortunate.
Vaccinating those in prison and those who care for these populations is an important step in protecting our communities – one of the American Medical Association seen as a top priority. Unlike long-term care facilities, prisons and prisons have an ever-changing population. Inmates, correctional officers and medical staff work closely together and sometimes under extremely difficult circumstances. Correctional officers and nurses like me return to the community after every shift. Salespeople are constantly coming in and out. Visits by family members of detainees or lawyers, when still in person, present another challenge.
But one of the biggest challenges is the release of an inmate. Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that a released inmate will receive health care outside of corrections. The symptoms of COVID-19 will not be controlled and the disease may go untreated for days or even weeks. In addition, as inmates return to the community, contact tracing is extremely difficult – some do not have an address required, some move from place to place, many do not have a license. driver or phone number. Many work multiple times and interact with a wide variety of people in several different contexts every day. These released inmates can easily become super-spreaders. If the immediate goal is to contain the virus, then it is essential to vaccinate those in our prisons and prisons.
I have provided care in prison for 25 years and am deeply committed to my patients. We are not looking for special treatment when it comes to vaccines. We ask people to understand the unique nature of the challenge we face and the urgent need to include inmates as a priority in planning vaccine distribution. States like Massachusetts – where inmates will be among the first to be vaccinated – understand the urgent need to vaccinate these vulnerable populations and heed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control which lists correctional officers and inmates as critically important priorities. Here in Illinois and Cook County, there is currently a deep understanding of the challenge and the demands. But public reaction to the issue of correctional immunization can often be deeply negative and skeptical. It’s an understandable reaction, but one that I hope people will eventually see as doomed to fail. I’m not making a moral argument here – although I certainly can. Rather, self-interest is best served by careful inclusion of prisons, prisons, correctional officers, and the health professions that serve and protect inmates in any vaccination plan.
Synthia Peterson is a registered nurse and regional manager for Wellpath. She resides in Illinois and has worked in correctional health care for 25 years.
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