Shelby County corrections facilities outrank general public in rate of COVID vaccination

Katherine Burgess
Memphis Commercial Appeal
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Timothy Davis, a Memphis Fire Department firefighter paramedic, administers the Johnson & Johnson vaccine COVID-19 vaccine to an inmate at the Shelby County Corrections Department in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

The population of inmates at the Shelby County Division of Corrections has reached a 70% COVID-19 vaccination rate, well surpassing the general rate of vaccination in the county. 

Those in leadership say it comes down to education about the vaccines — just taking the time to talk to men and women incarcerated at the penal farm about the nature of the vaccines, why they're important and what the side effects are. 

“I think what it boils down to is that our incarcerated brothers and sisters have set an example for the non-incarcerated: get vaccinated," said Dr. Bruce Randolph, Shelby County health officer. "We set our goal to reach herd immunity, 70% of a population, whether it’s Shelby County population as a whole or in a congregate setting you’ve got 70% of people vaccinated that increases the protection of a group as a whole. I just wish the general population would model after the incarcerated population and get vaccinated.”

The Division of Corrections reached its goal Tuesday, when healthcare navigators from the Memphis Fire Department visited the division to give Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson shots to inmates. Those who chose to get the vaccine received an incentive: A Chick-fil-A chicken biscuit.

In order to reach the 70% goal, Jerri Green, policy adviser and assistant county attorney, and Randolph spent time talking to both vaccinated and unvaccinated inmates. They created a video to show inmates, handed out flyers and spent about five hours holding four town halls to answer questions. 

Bobby Rice, a Memphis Fire Department firefighter paramedic, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to an inmate at the Shelby County Corrections Department in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

“Because of where they live, prisoners are especially vulnerable," Green said. "It’s hard to socially distance, they’re in close contact. In addition throughout the country about 40% of prisoners have an underlying condition that makes them more susceptible to severe COVID reactions or being hospitalized: Diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. This population just like nursing homes really needs to get vaccinated. That’s why we’ve made it a priority.”

When they started the project, 1,056 prisoners were in custody, 442 of whom had already been vaccinated. Now, they've added another 300 to that total. 

After getting his vaccine Monday, Keenan Fields waited his requisite 15 minutes while enjoying his Chick-fil-A. 

He had researched the vaccines and chose Pfizer since it had FDA approval, he said.

"I lost some people and it made me realize it was more serious than what I thought it was," Fields said. 

For Kelvin Hall, the vaccine became necessary when the situation with COVID-19 became "surreal," he said.

"I had to go ahead and do something to help me in a time when we all need help," he said. 

As inmates received their shots, Randolph and Anthony Alexander, director of corrections, stood in a corner of the room talking with inmate Dementay Henderson as he asked questions about the vaccine. 

Director of Corrections Anthony Alexander speaks with an 
inmate about the vaccine at the Shelby County Corrections Department in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

Henderson wasn't ready to get it yet, he told the two men as they discussed the nature of vaccines with him, gently persuading him. 

“My recommendation is be informed,” Randolph told him. “Do your research. Read up on it. Knowledge can relieve anxiety.”

Maybe he’d get it next time, but not today, Henderson told them, heading back to his block without the vaccine.

For Alexander, it's important to remember that getting the vaccine while in prison protects not just the inmate population, but the Shelby County community as a whole. 

"These young men are going to call home, maybe encourage their sisters, wives, mothers, I can take the vaccine, you can do it," he said. “Every last individual you see in this room is going to return to the streets of Shelby County. They’re going to return to somebody’s home, somebody’s establishment and they’re going to be vaccinated. They’re going to be safe. They’ll be able to hopefully participate in events out there and hopefully not contract the disease, not spread it."

Bobby Rice, a Memphis Fire Department firefighter paramedic, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to an inmate at the Shelby County Corrections Department in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

Currently, the wider Shelby County population has a full vaccination rate (meaning a person has received both doses of a two dose series or received Johnson and Johnson) of just 44%.

Case numbers are going down, and Randolph said he hopes that will continue.

“If we had reached 70% vaccination back in June we probably would not have experienced the spike that we did in July, August, September," Randolph said. "My message to the citizens of Shelby County is to get vaccinated and to wear your mask indoors whether you’re vaccinated or not. Stay the course and hopefully we can get through this winter without another spike.”

Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at [email protected], 901-529-2799 or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.

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