Vaccinations begin for prison personnel

Nurse Charles Brenke (right), with Wellpath, the Department of Corrections’ contracted medical pro- vider, gives the P zer covid-19 vaccine to Department of Corrections Capt. Dwana Johnson on Tuesday in North Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

State prison officials began the process Tuesday of administering the first batch of 975 covid-19 vaccine doses to health care workers and security staff members working at state prisons.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections has more than 5,000 workers who will be eligible to receive the vaccine, Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves said Tuesday, including employees of the department's health services provider, Wellpath.

The first two people to receive doses of the department's Pfizer vaccine stock Tuesday were Cherity Godwin, a nurse pharmacist who works for Wellpath at the Ouachita River Unit, and Capt. Dwana Johnson, the department's central coordinator in Pine Bluff.

The coronavirus has proved particularly virulent in Arkansas' prisons, infecting more than 10,000 prisoners and staff members, killing 50 prisoners and two staff members.

Graves -- who contracted the virus in October and recovered -- said the department's front-line health care workers and security staff personnel who have not already contracted the virus will be given priority to receive the vaccine, followed by the rest of the department's security staff, parole and probation officers and other staff members.

"Consistent with [Department of Health] guidance, priority will be given to those who have not previously contracted covid," Graves said. "But every indication is that we will have adequate supply to vaccinate all eligible staff regardless of their covid status."

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage »]

The announcement of the first inoculations in the state's prison system came several hours after Gov. Asa Hutchinson made changes to the state's vaccine distribution plan, moving first responders from the second or "1B" tier of recipients to the top, or "1A" tier, that includes health care workers, school nurses, and residents and staff of long-term-care facilities.

The state is currently in the 1A rollout phase, with Hutchinson saying the state hopes to move to 1B in February.

Neither category includes state prisoners, and Graves said Tuesday that a timeline has not been set to begin vaccinations among the prison's population of more than 13,000 prisoners.

"At this point I can tell you what 1A looks like and 1B looks like, beyond that we're continuing to work with the Department of Health," Graves said.

Critics of the department's handling of the covid-19 pandemic argue that prisoners remain vulnerable and unable to take other precautions to slow the spread, and should therefore be given priority for vaccinations.

On Friday, American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas Director Holly Dickson wrote an op-ed piece that ran in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, arguing that "incarcerated people must be included in the vaccine distribution plan, and should be treated similarly to other vulnerable people living in congregate settings, such as nursing homes."

Graves said Tuesday that asymptomatic staff members remain the most significant source of infection in the units and that vaccinating those individuals would help prevent the virus from entering prisons, which are currently shut off to all visitors.

Staff members will not be required to get the vaccine, however, and Graves said no staff person will be penalized or reassigned for refusing the vaccine.

"I'm confident that as individuals begin to see their peers get the vaccine, that that level of comfort will increase and that we will not have any issues with hitting our 80% vaccine goal," Graves said.

He added that the department has yet to determine when it will resume visitations or if it will require visitors to first get the vaccine.