Vaccine Delays Keep COVID Deaths High in Alabama Prisons

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Photo courtesy Province of British Columbia via Flickr

Alabama has the nation’s fifth highest rate of COVID-19 deaths among incarcerated populations, but the vaccine supply is still only a trickle.

Two women in state facilities died recently after testing positive for COVID-19, both of whom tested positive weeks after the state opened vaccine eligibility for those serving in the state’s jails and prisons.

One of the women — 64-year-old Kathy Robertson — tested positive for coronavirus more than a month-and-a-half after she could have received one of the life-saving vaccines.

To date, at least 65 people incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons have died after testing positive for the disease. Alabama and Arkansas, each with a rate of 30 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 incarcerated people, share the fifth place in total U.S. fatalities in prisons and jails, according to the latest figures from The Marshall Project.

New Mexico tops the list, with 43 deaths per 100,000 inmates, followed by Kentucky (39), New Jersey (29) and Oregon (29).

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Feb. 8 opened vaccination eligibility up to include those living in congregate settings, which included those in jails and prisons, but the Alabama Department of Corrections didn’t begin offering vaccines to a limited number of incarcerated people for another 51 days.

An ADOC spokeswoman in February told the Alabama Political Reporter (APR) that vaccinations of incarcerated people couldn’t begin until refrigeration equipment that had been ordered arrived, and was inspected by the Alabama Department of Public Health.

That equipment still hasn’t arrived; yet vaccinations have begun.

Robertson tested positive for COVID-19 at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women on March 24, and was taken to a local hospital three days later after her symptoms worsened, according to ADOC. Robertson died on April 7.

Linda Smith, 71, who was serving a 50-year sentence at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, tested positive for COVID-19 upon admission to a local hospital on March 2. She died on March 27.

Severe weather during the last week of February resulted in lower turnout at community clinics, prompting state health authorities to notify the prison system of available doses, according to ADOC.

On March 31, 871 men serving at the Bullock Correctional Facility agreed to be vaccinated, according to the department.

But ADOC didn’t begin the department’s full vaccination program for incarcerated people until April 8, when vaccines were offered to women at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. The department is to begin vaccinating incarcerated people at the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed facility and the Hamilton Community-Based Facility and Work Center this week, according to the department.

Inmates are among the most vulnerable population to Coronavirus, due to an inability to social distance inside prisons, and should be prioritized for vaccinations, according to the American Medical Association.

Kristi Simpson, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Corrections said the department in October ordered refrigeration equipment to store the vaccines.

“Due to high national demand, the refrigeration equipment has not yet shipped – we anticipate it will ship soon and expect it to arrive in early March,” Simpson told the Alabama Political Reporter.

“Once the equipment arrives, is properly installed, and subsequently is inspected by the ADPH to ensure the vaccine can be safely and securely stored, we anticipate our vaccine orders will be delivered and the inoculation process can begin – likely in late March.”

Simpson said then that the Alabama Department of Public Health would have to inspect the equipment, once installed, noting the timeline to begin vaccinations could change.

The Pfizer vaccine requires ultra-cold storage, while the Moderna vaccine, which first arrived in Alabama in late December, can be stored in a regular freezer. Alabama received its first shipment of the Johnson & Jonson vaccine, which can be stored in a regular refrigerator, in the first week of March.

APR asked in February whether vaccines could be stored outside of ADOC facilities and brought to the prisons to begin vaccinations, but Simpson said that wouldn’t be possible.

“Aside from the fact that there are only a limited number of locations across the state that can safely refrigerate and store the vaccine, the vaccine cannot be safely transported to our facilities without onsite refrigeration available upon receipt as its integrity would be compromised during movement,” Simpson said in February.

“That is why we must have these refrigeration systems onsite and operable at our facilities to begin the inoculation process.”

Despite that statement, vaccines are being stored outside of ADOC facilities and brought to prisons to be administered.

“The storage equipment ordered in October 2020 has not yet arrived. Once this equipment arrives, is installed, and subsequently is inspected by the ADPH, we will update the public via our bi-weekly COVID-19 updates,” Simpson said in a reply to a question from APR earlier this week.

“The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine doses that have been released to the ADOC are being stored appropriately and safely in standard refrigerators that meet mandated storage requirements.”

The New York Times on April 10, reported that COVID-19 testing rates in Alabama’s prisons is among the lowest in the nation, and the state has the second-lowest case rate nationwide, but among the highest death rate, suggesting that cases are going undetected. The newspaper reported that deaths may also be undercounted, noting the death of Colony Wilson, first reported by APR.

Wilson, 40, died May 11 at St. Vincent’s Hospital after collapsing in a stairwell in the Birmingham Women’s Community Based Facility and Community Work Center.

Other women living at the facility told APR in May that Wilson was exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, was struggling to breathe, and that when Wilson collapsed prison workers ordered them not to aid Wilson. Wilson complained of troubling breathing, and two days later was told to fill out a sick slip, inmates told APR then. She died before that appointment.

Wilson wasn’t tested for coronavirus before she died, APR learned in May, and wasn’t tested after death by the coroner, the New York Times reported. The coroner told the newspaper that Wilson died of a blood clot in the lungs.

Eddie Burkhalter, a staff writer at the Alabama Political Reporter, is a 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Reporting Fellow. The full version of this story is available here. You can email Eddie at eburkhalter@alreporter.com. 

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