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A first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is administered at Baton Rouge General Medical Center's new dedicated vaccine clinic inside its Center for Health, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. BRG opened the new clinic on Monday of this week at 9001 Summa Ave., on its Bluebonnet campus. Combined with its other locations, the clinic will allow the hospital to vaccinate thousands of people each week.

With COVID-19 raging across the state and affecting an increasingly younger demographic, vaccination rates among incarcerated youth for the novel coronavirus remain worryingly low.

Beth Touchet-Morgan, executive management adviser with the Office of Juvenile Justice, said last week that, out of the 205 young people in facilities, 24 percent — 49 people — are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and 6 more have started the process. 

All of the youth in Louisiana’s juvenile justice facilities meet the age requirement for vaccination. The youngest child currently in a facility is 13 and Touchet-Morgan said the department can accept people up to age 20.

Young adults in juvenile justice facilities may have a higher vaccination rate than their peers who aren’t incarcerated. Across the state last week, only 4.9% of those ages 5-17 had initiated a COVID-19 vaccine series. Ages 18-29 have a vaccination initiation rate of 12.1%.

But people housed in prisons and juvenile justice centers are more vulnerable to COVID-19 because they live communally. They share rooms, common spaces and cafeterias. It can be much more difficult — if not impossible — for them to keep several feet of distance from one another.

Louisiana’s adult prisons have also had much more successful vaccination campaigns than the juvenile facilities. Seventy-two percent of incarcerated people in the adult prison system have been vaccinated. Prison officials have encouraged vaccination by giving state inmates who start the vaccination process a $5 canteen credit.

The Office of Juvenile Justice has no plans to offer any vaccine incentives.

“At this time, we are not offering any incentives and I don’t think we’re planning on doing it, but this pandemic changes every day so I don’t want to say it will be off the table totally,” Touchet-Morgan said.

The juvenile justice vaccination plan remains the same: having caseworkers speak to the youth and their families. Around 60% of incarcerated youth are under 18 and require a parent or guardian’s consent in order to take the shot. Touchet-Morgan expressed confidence in this system.

“We feel like we’re making steady progress,” Touchet-Morgan said. “It kind of creeped up a little bit and that’s just incremental. That’s how we’ll have to do it, we’ll have to talk to each kid and each family and find the right time.”

Rachel Gassert, policy director at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, said the agency needs to do more for the incarcerated youth during the pandemic.

“The mitigation measures that [the Office of Juvenile Justice] has taken in the past (isolation, halting family visits, and restricting education and other programming) are counterproductive to rehabilitation and potentially dangerous,” Gassert said in a statement. “It is critical that [the agency] do everything in its power to increase vaccination rates, including mandating vaccines for all staff and embarking on a robust education campaign for youth by bringing in credible messengers – rather than their jailers – to communicate to the young people about the importance and safety of the vaccine.”

Louisiana’s pediatric experts and hospital leaders have repeatedly warned that the delta variant of the novel coronavirus is more dangerous for young people than previous strains.

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“Delta variant is coming for our children. We are seeing increased admissions, we are seeing increased office visits, we are seeing sick kids and intubated kids today in our hospital,” said Dr. Catherine O’Neal, the medical direction of infection control and prevention at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, in July.

Other advocates want the Office of Juvenile Justice to release more of the children and young adults in their custody in light of the pandemic. Cheyenne Blackburn, campaign director for Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, said these teenagers need to be with their families during this time.

“The best thing that we can do to protect children in their physical and mental health is to send as many kids home as possible to their families and communities where they can receive the support they need,” Blackburn said. “Yet during this pandemic, we have seen little to no effort by the state to do that.”

Staff could also pose a risk to the incarcerated children and young adults.

The Office of Juvenile Justice is relying on employees to self-report whether they have been vaccinated. So far, 36 percent of staff said they have been inoculated, though Touchet-Morgan said this number could be higher.

The agency said it could not provide a breakdown of the staff vaccination rate by institution. Probation and parole officers along with the central office staff either work or visit the facilities for programming, so they can’t calculate an in-facility staff vaccination rate, said Touchet-Morgan.

Late last week, there were seven incarcerated youth statewide who have tested positive for COVID-19. There’s no scheduled COVID-19 testing in the facilities. Testing is only done in cases of exposure or if someone is showing symptoms.

Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, said he wanted to encourage regular testing in the facilities instead of testing on an exposure basis.

“They tell me that they’re following all CDC guidelines based upon the conditions in which they have to operate. So in some areas they may be doing all that they can, but in other areas I think that they could be doing more,” Duplessis said.

Duplessis is optimistic that vaccination rates in the facilities will increase when COVID-19 vaccinations receive full federal authorization.

“It’s my hope that when that does happen, when FDA approval occurs, that this can be something that is in fact mandated, like we do for other vaccines for K-12 attendance,” Duplessis said.

Touchet-Morgan said that so far, cases have been fairly moderate, with the infected youth treated inside the facilities. In cases where the youth need outside treatment, the referring physician decides where the youth needs to go on a case-by-case basis. In the past, youth have been treated at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, Ochsner facilities, E.A. Conway and Avoyelles Hospital.

“We’re just going to continue to work with parents and make sure they have all the information ahead of them. If they want to make that decision as this surge progresses, we are there to offer the vaccine,” Touchet-Morgan said.