HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — In a pre-produced video provided to local media outlets by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office last week, the county Sheriff talks about the agency’s latest initiative.
“We haven’t had a widespread outbreak and we want to keep it that way,” said Sheriff Chad Chronister. “We’re not just protecting our inmates, we’re protecting our detention personnel as well as the community when they get released,” Chronister said in a string of soundbites his office emailed as part of a press release announcing it was starting to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to local inmates. The announcement came a week after we first emailed the sheriff asking about any plans to vaccinate local inmates.
Hillsborough County is now among at least two dozen Florida counties who confirmed to us they are working with its local health department to give inmates sitting in the county jail the option to get a shot while behind bars.
It’s a growing trend in these close-quarters, barbed wire areas where COVID-19 outbreaks are a constant threat to inmate and staff populations.
In Broward County where COVID-19 outbreaks last year prompted a class-action lawsuit [which recently reached a settlement], inmates started getting vaccinated by age last month. As of Tuesday, the jail had distributed vaccines to 225 of its inmates with more vaccination clinics being scheduled, according to a sheriff’s spokesperson.
Around the state, several counties started offering vaccinations to inmates this week, including jails in Pinellas, Henry and Palm Beach Counties.
Still, of about 40 counties who responded to our requests, a little under half told us they have yet to start vaccinating inmates.
While many reported that plans are in the works, at least a half-dozen county jail systems told us they do not have immediate plans to start vaccinating inmates anytime soon.
• In Polk County, a sheriff spokesperson told us, “no inmates have been vaccinated as of yet.”
• In Desoto County, Undersheriff Colonel James Vitali emailed, “at present, I am unaware of any logistics being reviewed for vaccinations.”
• In Hardee County, the jail’s medical advisor stated, “we do not plan to offer the vaccine.”
“We have to be thinking about correctional officers and deputies who guard those individuals in the jail,” said Florida Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican who represents Pinellas County. Brandes and Representative Omari Hardy, a Democrat who represents Palm Beach County, both supported getting vaccines into Florida’s prison system.
Florida was among the last states to offer vaccines to prisoners in the state’s correctional facilities.
Both believe county jails, which are typically operated by the County Sheriff’s office and abide by their own rules, should be no exception.
“Most of the people in locally run jails have not been convicted of a crime,” said Hardy. “They’ve been accused of something and often cannot post bail,” he said.
“If our focus is to get the viral load down in a community, then that’s a key population we need to address both in our jails and our prisons,” said Brandes.
Brandes doesn’t believe legislative action will be necessary as vaccine supply continues to become more abundant.
Several county jail systems had planned to offer inmates the Johnson & Johnson vaccine since it’s a one dose option and local inmates can be released at any time. On Tuesday, local inmates in Washington County jail were scheduled to start getting the J & J vaccine but the clinic had to be canceled when the FDA advised states to put a hold on distributing the vaccine due to concerns about blood clots.
Other counties including Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties who had hoped to offer inmates the one-dose vaccine are still moving forward with plans to vaccinate inmates and will be using the vaccine health departments provide them.
Back in Hillsborough County, inmate shots began one week ago. If released before they’re scheduled to get the second dose, inmates will be able to take their immunization cards to any county facility offering the vaccine.
Matthew Clay and Gregory Johnson were among those who got their first dose at the jail and, in the video released by the sheriff’s office, explained why.
“My concern was not having the vaccine and being inside the facilities with so many people,” said Clay.
“I’ve always been one for prevention,” said Gregory Johnson, a black inmate who also hoped to send a message to others.
“It shows the minority community that there’s nothing wrong with taking the shot,” he said.