The Hillsborough and Pasco County Sheriff’s Offices say they started vaccinating jail inmates this week. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said it will follow suit as soon as the vaccines arrive.
Tampa Bay’s law enforcement agencies are among the first in Florida to offer large-scale vaccinations to inmates in county jails.
Hillsborough sheriff’s officials said they started providing vaccines on Tuesday to inmates on a voluntary basis in the same order of distribution originally mandated by the Florida Department of Health. That means starting with people 65 years and older and those deemed medically vulnerable.
A Pasco sheriff’s spokeswoman said 85 inmates were vaccinated Thursday. Other inmates who want the vaccine should be able to receive it within a week to 10 days. The agency said it vaccinated eight inmates ages 65 and older about a month ago and all have received their second dose of the Moderna vaccine. Inmates will also receive vaccination cards.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he’s asked the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County for vaccines but has yet to receive any.
Several Florida jails have experienced outbreaks in close quarters during the pandemic year and public health officials have called for incarcerated people to be vaccinated. Yet there is no statewide plan to vaccinate prisoners, and the plans that do exist vary from county to county. Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to send vaccines to prisons for months, but on Tuesday officials announced that 30,000 doses were earmarked for state prisoners.
The Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun-Sentinel have reported a similar patchwork of jail vaccinations across the state. Jail officials in Seminole, Broward and Miami-Dade counties have already vaccinated some eligible inmates. But in other jails, no one has received the vaccine.
Gualtieri said the process is complicated by the fact that most jail inmates stay for a short time. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both require waiting periods between two doses, and inmates may be released before they get the second one.
He said he’s pushing for inmates to receive the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine but will take whatever vaccine he can get. The Pinellas jail will also prioritize older inmates and those with medical vulnerabilities, as well as inmates likely to spend a long time there.
“If they’re going to be there for an extended period of time, I want these people vaccinated,” he said. “If somebody’s sitting there for three days, we give (the first dose) to them and they’re gone … it’s not wasted, but we’re not maximizing the effect.”
Hillsborough County inmates who receive a first dose and are released before their second dose can take their vaccination card to any county vaccination site to receive the second dose, according to the Sheriff’s Office. That will also apply to Pasco inmates, said a sheriff’s spokeswoman there.
The Hillsborough jail medical staff conducted a survey last week of every inmate to gauge interest in the vaccine, officials said. There were 640 out of 2,897 inmates who said they wanted it. The percentage was slightly higher in Pasco, where a spokeswoman said 480 inmates of about 1,450 said yes. Pinellas has not conducted a survey, Gualtieri said.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office says it should receive up to 500 vaccines per week. When inmates are booked in, they will be asked if they are interested in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Since March 2020, 352 Hillsborough inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. The Sheriff’s Office said no inmate deaths have been attributed to the virus.
“The sooner we can get the vast majority of people vaccinated, the better for both those within our jails and those within our communities,” Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement. “By providing a means for inmates to get vaccinated, we are not only protecting those individuals but also protecting the hardworking deputies and staff members working within our jails every day.”
The Pinellas County jail has recorded 264 cases among inmates since March 2020, a spokesman said. Gualtieri said the last major outbreak came in June, but the number of active cases still fluctuates — it was at zero a few weeks ago, and at 19 on Thursday. In the Pasco jail, 287 inmates have tested positive.
Among the Hillsborough inmates who chose to receive their first dose this week was Matthew Clay, who spoke about his decision in a video released by the Sheriff’s Office.
Clay, 40, said his family asked him to get the shot while he was in jail, and he agreed it was a good idea.
“My concern was not having the vaccine (and) being inside the facility with so many people,” he said. Clay had firsthand experience of the risk: He said his cell mate tested positive for COVID-19 several months ago.
Clay previously worked as a cook and hopes to be released soon and return to the industry, so he said being vaccinated will help him.
Inmate Gregory Johnson, who was also vaccinated this week, said in the video that he got the vaccine to protect himself and others. Johnson is 59 and Black, so he wanted to set an example.
“Especially for the minority community,” he said. “You have to trust the scientists, the doctors and those that (are) telling us that we need to be preventive (and) proactive in this.”