As new COVID cases hit Florida prisons, staff vaccination rates are unknown

Infections are striking Florida prisons, jails and immigration detention centers anew.
South Unit of the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando, on Friday, May 14, 2021.
South Unit of the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando, on Friday, May 14, 2021.
Published Aug. 9, 2021

Coronavirus cases are hitting Florida correctional facilities anew, with state and federal prisons, jails and an immigration detention center reporting COVID-19 infections. The new infections come as Florida has taken center stage amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

Currently, the Florida Department of Corrections is not releasing vaccination rates among detention staff, data that a little over half of other states in the nation have opted to disclose. The state used to provide information about active staff infections, but stopped sharing this data two months ago.

Florida has become the epicenter for the coronavirus in the U.S. in recent weeks, leading the nation in infections and hospitalizations. As in nursing homes, the disease spreads easily inside correctional facilities, where many people live together in relatively small spaces that make it difficult to practice social distancing. Older, unvaccinated adults inside, who account for a fourth of the state prison population, are particularly at risk, as they are more likely to experience severe illness from the virus.

Over the course of the pandemic, the coronavirus has ravaged the state’s aging prison population. In total, 221 incarcerated people in state prisons have died of COVID-19 in Florida, lagging only behind Texas and California — two systems that also have large prison populations — for number of prisoner deaths due to the virus. In June, as cases declined, the state Department of Corrections removed its mask mandate for detention staff.

Sixty-nine incarcerated people have tested positive across 16 state prisons amid the new wave, according to Aug. 2 data provided by the Florida Department of Corrections. The state prison agency declined to disclose the number of staff with active infections. Its public coronavirus dashboard, which provided data on active cases and deaths among staff and residents, has not been updated since June 2.

“FDC collected and reported data on COVID-19 as part of our agency’s emergency response,” said Molly Best, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections, in an emailed statement. This data is no longer operationally necessary, as we have resumed normal non-emergency operations. All normal infectious disease protocols are in effect.”

Nine immigrants in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Broward Transitional Center in Deerfield Beach also currently have active infections. The immigration agency declined to disclose the number of staff who have the virus or vaccination efforts for staff and detainees.

A slew of county-run jails are reporting record-high cases, with anywhere from 31 to 68 positive cases, and at least one corrections officer in Orange County has died.

Among federal prisons run by the Bureau of Prisons within Florida, nine facilities and three residential rehabilitation centers currently have active COVID-19 cases, with 42 staff and 37 incarcerated people positive, according to the department’s public database.

In other states, public health researchers and criminal justice advocates have raised alarm about the low vaccination rate among detention staff compared to the general population — with incarcerated people choosing to get vaccinated at significantly higher rates than correctional employees. Staff, who must return to the larger community daily, are often believed to introduce the virus to the inmate population, though outbreaks have also been linked to transfers of inmates between facilities.

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A little over 40 percent of incarcerated people held in Florida state prisons approximately — 33,031 out of 80,228 total inmates — have been vaccinated as of July 26, according to the state prison agency.

“Correctional officers, correctional probation officers and other FDC employees are members of the general public and are not required to report personal health information,” said Best in an emailed statement on why the agency was not disclosing staff vaccine rates.

In Florida, the decision not to share vaccination information mirrors other state agencies in Florida. In June, the Department of Health said it would no longer issue daily COVID-19 data. That agency and the Agency for Health Care Administration also do not disclose vaccination rates among long-term care facility staff. However, nursing homes are required to report this information to the federal government, giving the public a marginal view of the vaccine hesitancy among these workers. There is no similar reporting mandate for Florida’s state prisons.

In contrast, the federal Bureau of Prisons is listing the number of staff and inmates who have been vaccinated at individual prisons. About 55 percent of incarcerated people and 50 percent of staff have completed vaccinations as of Aug. 4.

The Florida Department of Corrections declined to comment on whether they’ve seen increased vaccine demand among staff or inmates in recent weeks as cases rise within the state.

“If an inmate who previously declined the vaccination, decides they want to receive the vaccine, they may request an appointment to be vaccinated,” Best noted.