Mar. 16—MIDDLETON — In four of the state's largest counties, sheriff's departments, including Essex, are not tracking or reporting the number of employees who have refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19, data collected by the state's highest court shows.
An investigation by the Associated Press and The Marshall Project released Monday reported that in many correctional facilities across the United States, as many as half of the employees have indicated that they've chosen not to get the vaccine, citing a range of concerns from concerns over its safety to a belief that the illness is not as severe as reported, to some even citing false conspiracy theories that the government or big tech companies are using it to implant tracking chips, the report said.
Within the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, which runs state prisons, half of staff have been reported as refusing vaccination for the virus, according to a weekly special master's report to the Supreme Judicial Court, which says that while 2,931 employees have received at least one shot, another 3,074 employees have not been vaccinated at all and are listed as refusing it.
But in jails in four Eastern Massachusetts communities, the numbers aren't as clear.
Essex, Suffolk, Middlesex and Norfolk have reported the number of vaccines administered to staff, but not the number of staff members or vendors refusing the vaccines.
And that makes it difficult to calculate what percentage of staff have been vaccinated.
In Essex County, 418 staff among the county's three facilities have received at least their first vaccine dose and have either received a second dose or are scheduled to, according to the report.
The jail has a total of 685 people working at its three facilities: 560 employees and another 125 people working at the facilities through contracts with vendors. That suggests that the status of a little more than a third of the people working at the jail is unknown.
Gretchen Grosky, a spokeswoman for Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger, said that because the vaccine program is voluntary, it cannot require staff to notify the department of a refusal.
"The vaccination program is voluntary and thus employees who have not yet received the vaccine are not required to provide a refusal to the department," Grosky said. "As such, the department can only report the number of vaccines which it has administered or those who have voluntarily self-reported to the department that they received the vaccine elsewhere."
The situation is not unique to Essex County. But a number of other counties have reported refusal numbers to the special master. In Bristol County 371 employees have refused the vaccine, while 188 have received at least the first dose. In Plymouth County, 280 staff have refused it, while 441 have received at least the first dose.
"The special master is continuing to work with representatives of the petitioners, the Department of Correction, and the county sheriffs to address issues concerning COVID-19 vaccination, testing, and protocols," attorney Brien O'Connor, the designated special master, wrote in the most recent report to the SJC, issued last Thursday.
Nor is it unique to jails and prisons — The Marshall Project and AP also acknowledged high rates of refusals among health care workers, among other groups.
No one from the Essex County Correctional Officers Association, the union representing employees at the jail's three facilities, returned a phone call on Monday.
The union did conduct a vaccine survey in December, but the results of that were not made public — and members were reminded in social media posts announcing the survey to use their personal email addresses when responding.
The sheriff's department began providing the vaccines to staff and inmates in January — among the first people in Massachusetts to be eligible to get the shots. And 250 appointments were reserved for correctional officers at a mass vaccination site for first responders on the Topsfield Fairgrounds in January.
Grosky said the facility is still offering vaccinations to staff and vendors (outside employees who provide services inside the facilities).
Grosky suggested that the number reported to the special master does "not necessarily represent the true number of officers and staff who have been vaccinated and that number is likely higher."
Among prisoners at the jail and two lower-security facilities in Salisbury and Lawrence, 575, or 62%, have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while 351 have been recorded as refusing it — a similar ratio to the employees and corrections officers in the facility, according to the special master's report.
Grosky said she believes that a continuing effort to educate staff and inmates about the vaccine will also have an effect on the participation rate.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.