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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

Cook County Jail Detainees, Officers Now Receiving Coronavirus Vaccinations

Thousands of correctional officers and hundreds of inmates have now been vaccinated. Advocates pushed for detained people to receive shots sooner because of the risks they face.

Inside a unit at the Cook County Jail.
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LITTLE VILLAGE — Coronavirus vaccinations have started for people detained and working at Cook County Jail.

People detained at the jail are part of Phase 1B of the city and state’s vaccination campaigns, which means they were eligible for vaccinations starting Jan. 25. They were included in the phase after a push from community groups and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended people at detention centers be vaccinated.

Cook County health officials had vaccinated 300 people detained at the jail as of Friday. There are 5,376 people incarcerated at the jail, according to data from the Sheriff’s Office.

Correctional officers and other staffers at the jail began getting immunized Jan. 20. More than 2,000 of the about 3,000 Sheriff’s Office employees at the jail have been vaccinated.

People who are incarcerated live in crowded conditions with limited access to medical care, and they have a high prevalence of chronic illness, advocates have said.

“Just like people in nursing homes, they live in congregate settings, with no ability to social distance,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, which spearheaded calls for state and local governments to commit to the vaccinations.

The jail was one of the largest hot spots for coronavirus cases early in the pandemic.

Ten people detained at Cook County Jail. have died from complications related to COVID-19 since March. As of Sunday, 107 detainees at Cook County Jail are positive for coronavirus, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Nearly 1,300 detainees currently at the jail previously tested positive, but they have since recovered.

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Four correctional officers and a deputy have died from coronavirus. Thirty-five officers currently have the disease, and 1,108 Sheriff’s Office employees have recovered from coronavirus since March, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Tom Dart has been an advocate for vaccinating detainees and officers at the jail, said spokesman Matt Walberg. Vaccinating both is essential because “providing vaccinations for staff without obtaining them for detainees limits the effectiveness of the vaccinations at protecting both groups of people,” Walberg said.

Detainees are being offered the Moderna vaccine at divisional clinics, where staffers bring the vaccines to other units at the jail. Administration started with the highest-risk detainees, said Caryn Stancik, Cook County Health spokesperson.

Most people detained at Cook County Jail stay for a short period of time, but the Moderna vaccine requires a second shot 28 days after the initial dose. Detainees are given a vaccination record card and a flyer for community clinics where the vaccination is offered so they may get their second dose elsewhere if they are transferred or released from the jail, Stancik said.

The sheriff and the county health department are running an education campaign to inform detainees about the vaccines and the benefits of choosing to be immunized, Stancik said.

But due to challenges accessing quality medical care while incarcerated, Mills anticipates overcoming skepticism toward the vaccine will be a tremendous hurdle.

Imprisoned and detained people must be allowed to speak with medical professionals so they have thorough information about the benefits and risks to getting immunized, Mills said. Correctional facilities should also have trusted peer educators on each tier of the jail, since “peer education works much better than top down education,” Mills said.

Shortly after inmates and detainees were moved up the priority list, a West Side legal group spearheaded a campaign to inform prisoners about vaccines.

“There’s a lot of distrust of medical personnel in both the jails and the prisons because of the years of bad care that’s been given,” Mills said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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