Vaccination for prisoners, staff vital to halt pandemic

May 9, 2021. The Daily Reflector. By Grant O’Brien.

2020 NC Schweitzer Fellow Grant O’Brien

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged each of us to recognize two important truths: that our own safety depends on the actions of others, and that our own choices impact those around us. Some populations, such as people living in prisons, are particularly vulnerable and rely heavily on others to protect their health and safety.

I want to encourage all of those who work with vulnerable populations, particularly prison staff members, to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. The vaccine will help prison staff protect themselves and their families as well as the lives of the prisoners who rely on them.

Prisons are densely populated spaces and well-documented amplifiers of the spread of COVID-19. More than 10,000 of the state’s 55,000 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 and 53 prisoners died, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety. These 53 people were not given death sentences and did not deserve that fate. Our state is responsible for the welfare of those repaying their debt to society in these facilities and must prioritize their safety.

Commendable efforts are underway for this purpose, particularly the “Extending the Limits of Confinement” (ELC) program, which makes non-violent offenders with release dates within the next two years eligible to serve their sentence outside prisons under active supervision. Gov. Roy Cooper agreed in February to release 3,500 inmates on ELC over six months, but this program will have a limited impact. As of April 13, only 1,117 inmates had been transferred to ELC, according to NCDPS. Further measures are vital to protecting those still in prisons.

While people are living in prison, they depend on the state to provide spaces and resources for them to live and breathe safely and avoid getting COVID-19. On April 5, NCDPS began offering vaccines to all prisoners, which can have a massive impact in protecting them and staff members alike as new and more contagious variants continue to spread. As of April 27, 15,872 prisoners have received a vaccine, DPS reported. However, it could be months before many who wish to be vaccinated receive a shot.

Considerable improvement in safety could come with improving vaccination rates of those who work in prisons. Vaccinations have been available to prison staff members since early January, but DPS data suggests fewer than 60 percent of its 11,000-plus workers have taken the shot. I want to encourage those working in prisons to strongly consider receiving a vaccine. They have proven to be safe and effective and represent the key to advance out of this pandemic.

The vaccine does not contain the coronavirus, and it is impossible to get COVID through the vaccine. The FDA’s pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while it investigated six people (of 7 million) who developed rare blood clots underscores the strong emphasis on safety. While many people have experienced brief flu-like symptoms after being vaccinated with Pfizer and Moderna, we must decide whether this is a fair price for protecting ourselves, our families and those we work with.

Even as North Carolina vaccinates its citizens living in prisons, new people will continue to cycle in and out of these facilities in the coming months, making it important that the workers staffing these facilities are protected from the disease. NCDPS would be smart to offer incentives (e.g. vacation days) for workers who receive the vaccine.

We are getting closer to conquering this terrible disease but will not be able to do so without making sure that North Carolinians are vaccinated. Choosing to receive the vaccine is an act of service to self and others, and anyone who works with people vulnerable to getting COVID should seriously consider it.

Grant O’Brien is a medical student at the ECU Brody School of Medicine and a 2020-2021 N.C. Schweitzer Fellow. He is from Concord.

Contact Bobby Burns at and 329.9572.