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Alabama prisons rank eighth-deadliest due to COVID, yet no inmate vaccinations

Vaccinations could begin late March, may be delayed, depending on arrival of refrigeration equipment/inspections.

A bottle with vaccine and syringe in front of blue background. (STOCK PHOTO)

While some states have begun offering COVID-19 vaccines to state inmates, those incarcerated in Alabama have not yet had a chance to receive the potentially life-saving inoculations, and it may be another month before vaccinations in state prisons begin. 

This, despite Alabama prisons ranking as eighth highest in COVID-19 deaths in the nation, per 100,000 inmates, according to a joint project by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press

In California, 40 percent of the inmates have received the first of two vaccine doses, according to news accounts. Vaccinations in the state’s prisons began Dec. 22. As of Feb. 23 there had been 211 COVID-19 deaths among inmates and 26 prison worker deaths in California, according to the KTLA 5 news station. 

To date, 61 inmates in Alabama have died after either testing positive for COVID-19 before or after death. Additionally, three prison workers have died from COVID-19. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Feb. 8 opened vaccinations up to those 65 and older, teachers, certain other frontline workers and people living in congregate settings, which include inmates.  

Kristi Simpson, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Corrections, in a recent response to APR 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 said. “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.” 

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ADOC’s refrigeration equipment, once it arrives, will have to be inspected by the Alabama Department of Public Health, Simpson said. 

“As such, these timeframes are best estimations and are subject to change,” Simpson said. 

Alabama’s prison workers can currently be vaccinated through local providers, and once the refrigeration equipment is in place and inspected, ADOC will update its existing order of vaccines to include all staff and all inmates. ADOC’s previous vaccine order reflects the vaccine rollout phase the state was in at the time, Simpson explained. 

Asked if it would be possible to store the vaccines at other locations so that the vaccination of inmates and staff could begin before ADOC’s equipment arrives, Simpson said no. 

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

Additionally, ADOC’s health care provider, Wexford Health, does not have statewide storage capabilities, and the on-site refrigeration equipment would be needed regardless, Simpson said in a response to APR’s further questions.

Simpson said ADOC is working as quickly as possible “and will be ready to move expeditiously once our refrigeration systems are installed and inspected.”

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“I should note that all parties involved – the ADPH and the ADOC – are at the mercy of a supply and demand economy. Orders for this necessary refrigeration equipment are not just delayed for us, but for everyone due to high demand and limited supplies. This is also obviously true of the vaccines themselves, which you can see playing out across the country to varying degrees,” Simpson said. 

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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