How are COVID-19 vaccinations going at Minnesota's state prisons and treatment centers?
About 75% of people incarcerated in Minnesota prisons are willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
And by next week everyone in the prisons who wants to be vaccinated will be offered a shot, said Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell on Wednesday.
All Minnesotans older than 16 became eligible for vaccines this week. Before that happened, state agencies were working to vaccinate particularly vulnerable groups such as those in prisons and those in mental health treatment programs.
"We had hoped to get through this without a single death," Schnell said of the pandemic.
There have been multiple outbreaks in the state's prisons and 12 inmates have died. No corrections officers have died, but some have become severely ill, Schnell said.
More than 1,000 employees in the department and nearly 4,000 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 as of March 31, according to the DOC data page.
Staff and inmates started to get vaccines at the same time because there's so much interaction between the two groups. They were allotted vaccines in Phase 1b, Tier 3 of the state's vaccine rollout plan — before employees in the energy sector and after child care providers.
"This is definitely a very high-risk population and the data were quite compelling," said Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director at the Minnesota Department of Health, on a call with the St. Cloud Times. "Our Minnesota ethics collaborative also weighed in and felt strongly about the need for and the importance of vaccinating in these settings."
'An opportunity to resume a level of normal'
The Department of Corrections has a campaign to promote the vaccine and answer questions and concerns.
"The campaign has really been about trying to raise awareness," Schnell said. "This is our way forward."
As much as life can be normal in a prison, people want to go back to normal, he said. Inmates have had to forgo visits with family, in-person classes, Bible studies with outside volunteers and other programs over the last year.
"We want to encourage people whether they're in our prisons, our staff or in the community, because (the vaccine) is our hope for a kind of recovery and an opportunity to resume a sense, a level of normal," Schnell said.
People in state treatment programs through the Department of Human Services have adopted the vaccine at a rate similar to state inmates.
Overall, 73.5% of DHS patients and clients are fully vaccinated, according to a department spokesperson. There are about 1,600 people in that system, much fewer than state prisons, but they're spread across many facilities from the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center to the St. Peter Forensic Nursing Home and Forensic Mental Health Program.
Vaccination clinics for those groups took place in February and March. Some patients left before completing both vaccine doses, others came in having started the vaccine at another location. DHS is trying to get more vaccine for those new patients and for established patients who didn't initially want a vaccine but have changed their minds.
COVID-19 stats at Minnesota prisons*
- Staff vaccinations at the St. Cloud prison: 129
- Inmate vaccinations at the St. Cloud prison: 308
- Staff vaccinations at all prisons: 1,448
- Employees with confirmed cases: 1,053
- Employees who contracted COVID-19 and have returned to work: 860
- Vaccinations among all state inmates: 2,363
- Inmates who have tested positive: 3,984
- Total prison population on March 1, 2020: 8,857
- Number of COVID-19 tests administered in the last two weeks: 7,756
- COVID-19 tests administered through mid-March: 97,450
*Data from the Minnesota Department of Corrections through Wednesday, March 31.
** Vaccination numbers include those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and those who completed two doses of another vaccine.
Nora Hertel is the government watchdog reporter for the St. Cloud Times. Reach her at 320-255-8746 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @nghertel.