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Prisons are high risk settings for COVID-19, but Michigan isn't keeping track of how many guards get vaccinated

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A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections says the department is aggressively advocating vaccines through measures like flyers and messages on TVs.

Though prisons are high risk areas for COVID-19 transmission, it’s unclear how many guards in Michigan have taken the vaccine.

Coronavirus shots are encouraged but not required for inmates and staff at state prisons, Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said.

At least 68% of Michigan's 32,530 prisoners are fully vaccinated against the disease, according to state data updated last week. That's higher than the rate for the general population; close to 60% of adult Michiganders were fully inoculated as of Aug. 6, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But state officials say they aren't keeping track of how many guards get the vaccine.

That's concerning, said Debra Furr-Holden, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Michigan State University.

"Vulnerable populations deserve a heightened degree of protection," she said. "And unfortunately, in my opinion, we're falling short of that right now when it comes to prisoners."

Many incarcerated people have chronic medical conditions, making them susceptible to COVID-19. And crowded conditions don't help matters, said Joshua Hoe, who used to used to be incarcerated.

"You can't socially distance," Hoe, a policy analyst with a nonprofit called Safe & Just Michigan, said. "Where I was incarcerated, we were in 160-person pole barns."

Gautz, the MDOC spokesman, says the department is aggressively advocating vaccines through measures like flyers and messages on TVs.

But Furr-Holden says many incarcerated people have "valid mistrust" of the medical system given the poor-quality health care they receive while behind bars.

"I think better resources and supports for prisoners would go a long, long way," she said.

Since the start of the pandemic, 143 Michigan prisoners and six corrections workers have died after contracting COVID-19, according to the MDOC.

As of Tuesday, the MDOC reported 12 active COVID-19 cases among prisoners in its system.

Hoe is encouraged by relatively low transmission numbers as of late, which he attributes to vaccination levels and the fact that so many Michigan prisoners have already had COVID-19. More than 26,700 Michigan prisoners have tested positive for the disease since the pandemic started.

Still, Hoe worries about guards bringing in the highly contagious Delta variant.

"Obviously, the people who are incarcerated can't leave and catch the new variants, but people who are going back into the community can and those are the employees and the correctional officers," he said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has not mandated vaccines for state workers, which would extend to staff in state prisons.