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Official says DOC is prepared for upcoming vaccination of prison population

Published: Jan. 23, 2021 at 7:32 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -The Department of Corrections is prepared to offer COVID-19 vaccines to people who are incarcerated in Alaska as soon as the state moves into the next tier of its vaccine distribution plan, according to Director of Institutions Jeremy Hough.

“It’ll work very similar to the same process we do when we have when we distribute flu shots,” said Hough.

Some of the DOC’s population of nearly 5,000 people has already started to receive the vaccine, according to public health officials.

“Regarding prisons, for anyone who’s in an infirmary and staff caring for them, they were considered part of 1A, and they have already been vaccinated, and now they’re starting with anyone 65 and over,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, during a media briefing on Jan. 4.

The state is treating people the same “regardless of where they’re at,” Zink said.

Currently, health care workers and Alaskans aged 65 and older are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine from the state. The next group will include frontline essential workers aged 50 and up, and people living and working in congregate settings, such as homeless and domestic violence shelters and corrections facilities.

Hough said around 4,800 people are in DOC custody, and a DOC spokesperson said roughly 1,550 people work inside DOC institutions.

According to the DOC’s online COVID-19 tracker, updated on Friday, Jan. 22, 2,062 people in the DOC’s general population have tested positive for COVID-19, 21 have been hospitalized and five have died.

In December, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska pushed for incarcerated people to receive priority in the state’s vaccine distribution plan.

“When we sentence somebody to time in prison, the punishment is the loss of freedom,” ACLU of Alaska Communications Director Megan Edge said during an interview. “The punishment isn’t an inadequate health care, and you shouldn’t have to worry every day if you’re going to die of a virus that you can’t control.”

According to the DOC, 53% of its population is made up of people who have not been sentenced.

It’s unclear when the next tier of the state’s vaccine distribution plan will open up, as public health officials do not yet know how many doses of the vaccine will be allocated for Alaska in February. It’s possible much or all of the February allotment will go toward finishing vaccinations for Alaskans 65 and older, according to officials.

Hough said the DOC has hired a number of extra staff members called COVID technicians to help facilitate pandemic related needs, including distributing vaccines.

“They are poised and ready to implement this,” he said.

Hough also said some regions are ahead of schedule when it comes to vaccinations, which has benefited certain DOC facilities.

“I know that Bethel and Nome have been on... I’ll call it an accelerated plan,” said Hough.

Despite multiple requests, the DOC did not provide information regarding how many staff members and people in custody have already been vaccinated.

In an emailed statement, spokesperson Sarah Gallagher wrote, “DOC does not have a reliable system to generate a report of vaccine distribution. We are tracking in each prisoner’s electronic health record if they received or declined the vaccine, and when the 2nd dose should be administered. However, we do not have a reliable tool to generate totals.”

Gallagher said the testing information provided on the DOC’s website is entered by hand, an effort the department does not have the resources to duplicate with vaccine data.

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