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Ohio’s prison workforce is 28% vaccinated, per state data; lowest rate among all state agencies

Posted at 8:00 AM, Oct 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-23 08:00:29-04

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on under a content-sharing agreement.

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Ohio’s prison authority, the largest government agency in the state tasked with overseeing the 43,000 inmates in its custody, is the least vaccinated entity in Ohio’s government, according to state data based on employee-submitted records.

About 28% of employees within the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction are vaccinated against COVID-19 and have submitted proof of it, according to data released Wednesday by the Ohio Department of Administrative Services.

In comparison, about 66% of Ohio adults statewide have received at least one dose of the vaccine, as have about 79% of American adults.

Employees are not required to seek or submit proof of vaccination, but the state offers an incentive: Any of its employees who show proof of vaccination gets $100. If a whole agency reached 65% vaccination by Oct. 15, everybody got $300; if an agency hits 85% by Nov. 15, everybody gets another $600.

The idea is that the incentives will ultimately cost less than the likely cost of care that an unvaccinated labor force would warrant.

However, ODRC claims the DAS data is inaccurate. A department spokeswoman said about 58% of its staff is vaccinated, based on data from vaccines administered by ODRC staff and employees who self-report.

ODRC’s low vaccination rate raises thorny questions about the standard of care it provides to inmates. Ohio’s prisons, early in the pandemic, were home to some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. In April 2020, more than 75% of inmates at two large prisons in the state had confirmed cases of COVID-19.

More than 6,500 inmates and nearly 5,600 prison workers have been infected with COVID-19 during the pandemic. At least 136 inmates died of the disease, along with 13 prison workers, according to state data. More than 100 prison workers are currently infected with COVID-19.

Early in the pandemic, a union representing correctional officers spoke out about a lack of proper personal protective equipment for officers, and advocates criticized ODRC for letting the coronavirus run wild in its facilities.

Prison workers were some of the first people in Ohio with access to COVID-19 vaccines, obtaining their first doses in December, according to Director Annette Chambers Smith’s testimony to lawmakers this spring. She denied an interview request.

ODRC claims 58% of its workers are vaccinated. JoEllen Smith, an agency spokeswoman, said the department’s data is comprised of workers who receive the vaccine via ODRC medical staff, as well as those who receive it from outside providers. The latter group are “requested” to submit proof to the department, she said. Smith did not respond to a request for a breakdown of these two categories.

“[The department] continues to offer the vaccine to staff and the incarcerated population. While the vaccine is encouraged, it remains completely voluntary,” she said. “I am not able to speculate as to why an employee chose not to complete the attestation form.”

The current vaccine rate for the incarcerated population is 57%, according to ODRC.

The Ohio Civil Servant Employees Association, a union partly comprised of prison workers, called Smith and other top prison officials “flat out ineffective” and accused them of “negligence” in April 2020. The union criticized prison officials for providing insufficient personal protective equipment, failing to provide proper sick leave if they’re screened from working due to infection control protocols, and others.

Now, however, the DAS data indicates corrections officers are avoiding the most powerful personal protective equipment of them all — vaccination, which has been shown to be incredibly powerful in preventing death and hospitalization from COVID-19. Real world data shows unvaccinated people are about eight times less likely to contract COVID-19 than unvaccinated people and are likely to face a more minor bout with the disease in the off-chance that they are infected.

OSCEA President Chris Mabe said in an interview Thursday he’s not sure exactly what’s behind the “hiccup” between the DAS data and ODRC data on vaccination. However, he said a $100 incentive for vaccination is a paltry sum for an overworked, underpaid, and under-resourced staff engaged in a dangerous line of work.

He said the union fought for and even went out of pocket to pay for PPE early in the pandemic, which spawned trust problems as the state now pushes vaccination of its workforce. He said some in the union are likely vaccinated and simply wish to keep their medical information private; others, he said, have succumbed to anti-vaccine misinformation that has deluged the internet.

He generally rebuffed the notion that prison guards bear any “duty” to seek vaccination and said it should be a part of labor negotiations.

“We bargain terms and conditions of our contract as a union,” he said. “We reserve our right at the table to discuss this.”

The ACLU of Ohio, early in the pandemic, pushed ODRC to release more nonviolent offenders to slow the spread of the coronavirus inside.

Its lobbyist, Gary Daniels, said in a statement that ODRC must do more to address the low vaccination rate, whether that’s through larger cash incentives, more testing of unvaccinated workers, or stricter mask requirements for unvaccinated workers.

“The low rate of vaccination status among prison staff is part of the continuing failure of Ohio’s leaders to properly address the ongoing crisis of COVID-19 in our overcrowded prisons which were severely understaffed even before the pandemic,” he said.

The ODRC data arrives as battle lines emerge on a standoff between law enforcement officers and the governments that employ them. NPR reports police agencies in Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities are clashing with their municipal employers over COVID-19 vaccination mandates.

In Columbus, only 28% of police officers have received the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a May report in the The Washington Post. Police told The Columbus Dispatch that this number is inaccurate, but claimed (in an apparent contradiction) that the department does not maintain “reliable” data on employee vaccination.

The Ohio Department of Public Safety, according to the DAS data, bears the third lowest employee vaccination rate (41%) by state agency. ODPS houses the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

ODPS spokesman Bret Crow said the DAS data reflects the number of employees who submitted proof of their vaccination status; not necessarily the agency’s true vaccination rate.

He said he “suspects” the vaccination rate is higher given anecdotal reports of employees who wish to keep their vaccination status private, but said neither ODPS nor the Ohio State Highway Patrol track, discuss or release employees’ medical information.