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Two years into pandemic, vaccination campaign in Delaware prisons makes slow progress

 The Howard R. Young Correctional Center in Wilmington.
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
The Howard R. Young Correctional Center in Wilmington.

Months after most COVID vaccination campaigns faded from view, public health workers continue visiting Delaware prisons seeking people open to getting the shot.

A public health team led by Dr. Sandra Gibney - a Wilmington emergency room physician and one of the most recognizable public health figures in the state - visited the Howard R. Young Correctional Center in Wilmington on Tuesday. The team started in an intake unit, looking to reach the group most likely to have been recently exposed to COVID-19.

In each unit, Gibney answered questions ranging from skepticism about vaccine effectiveness to concerns about how long to wait between doses.

“How many boosters are there?" asked one man in a pretrial unit.

“It’s as many as you need," Gibney replied. "Every three months, every four months until this [virus] stops mutating. It’s so new that we think that the body has to take more time to change and meet the virus.” The man agreed to receive a booster, along with five others in his unit.

Because turnover in the prison’s pretrial units is high, prison health staff have encountered difficulties raising the vaccination rate in those units above 40 percent. The vaccination rate in the sentenced units - which hold people in long-term custody - have hovered above 60 percent for months.

Some of those in pretrial units had received their first vaccine doses during previous stints in custody. John, a man in the intake unit, says he received two doses in custody last year before being released and checking into a rehab facility.

There, John says he contracted COVID for the first time. "All of the sudden I started feeling really tired, and I had a huge headache - a headache like I’d never had before," he said. "I was just out of it, so I checked myself into the hospital and found out I was positive. I didn’t think I could test positive if I had the vaccination, but I checked myself into the hospital and found out I was positive.”

When he returned to custody, John took the opportunity to get a booster shot.

Another man who received a booster shot on Tuesday expressed hope that he would qualify for the incentive that Delaware's Department of Correction offers to those who accepted vaccination: five days of so-called "good time" credits, meaning a reduction in his overall sentence.

And these visits by outside public health staff are turning up willing vaccine recipients. Tuesday’s visit was unusually successful, with 26 people getting shots, including five receiving their first dose. The public health team found the largest group in a unit for people undergoing substance use treatment - nearly half of Tuesday’s total.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.