Inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, participate in a class called Malachi Dads, Tuesday, October 25, 2016, a prison parenting class to help men become positive influences in their children's lives while they are incarcerated and after they're released. (Photo by Ted Jackson, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune) ORG XMIT: NOLA2015061614435814

Since Louisiana prisoners over 70 became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, about 85% of them have accepted the offer, leaving corrections officials optimistic that large swaths of the state prison population will follow suit. 

The high acceptance rate comes in contrast to low turnout among other eligible groups, especially health care workers. Many Louisiana hospitals and nursing homes reported an unexpected early reluctance among staff whop were offered the vaccine, and recent nationwide polling suggests at least a quarter of Americans plan to avoid ever getting vaccinated and another roughly 20% want to wait.

Louisiana corrections officials are offering inmates a $5 canteen credit for receiving the vaccine and promising wider access to visitation and programming once those activities resume. The ultimate goal is herd immunity, both inside and outside prison, which requires about 70% of people to get vaccinated.

Prisons and jails nationwide became epicenters of the virus in many communities, which experts said was inevitable because of close quarters and enclosed spaces that make social distancing impossible. Some experts argue vaccine distribution plans should take that into account, emphasizing that detention centers are not isolated from cities and towns surrounding them. 

Some other states are giving prisoners and prison staff higher priority in their vaccine distribution plans, but Louisiana officials have shied away from seriously prioritizing those groups. Rhode Island, for example, placed incarcerated people in Phase 1 of their distribution plan; officials have already vaccinated about a quarter of prisoners and 60% of jail and prison staff, according to data collected by the COVID Prison Project

Inmates are not mentioned in the publicly released current guidelines for Louisiana. Those rules place corrections officers and jailers in the group that will be eligible for vaccines next, alongside grocery store workers, schoolteachers and employees of homeless shelters and other congregate group homes.

Officials have not provided a timeline for when the state will move into that phase of its vaccination plan, though officials announced Friday that the state will expand eligibility to people over 65 next week, meaning more inmates and guards will likely get vaccinated. 

COVID cases among inmates and staff remain a concern in the meantime, but data released by DOC suggests the virus swept through the prison system earlier in the pandemic and has since subsided to some degree. However, officials have noted persistent staffing challenges because of prison guards staying home to quarantine or recover from the virus. 

Those affected in recent weeks include the warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the sprawling maximum security facility in West Feliciana that houses thousands of inmates. Warden Darrel Vannoy has been out sick with COVID, a DOC spokesman confirmed. Officials declined to provide additional details about his condition. 

At least 34 inmates and six DOC employees have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic started. Those numbers include the warden and medical director of Raymond Laborde Correctional Center in Avoyelles Parish, who died within days of each other during the early weeks of the pandemic. 

Initial draft guidelines placed Louisiana prisoners on the same tier as grocery clerks and teachers, but those plans appear to have changed. Under the current guidelines, inmates are becoming eligible for the vaccine when they fall into other categories: Right now that means being 70 or having end-stage renal disease. 

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That places Louisiana among at least 35 states that have reported vaccine distribution behind bars, according to the COVID Prison Project.

Of the 460 eligible Louisiana inmates, 394 have opted to get vaccinated — an 85% vaccination rate among that group, according to DOC. Prison settings could help the state reach herd immunity if the trend continues as more inmates become eligible.

"The numbers are there," DOC spokesman Ken Pastorick said. "Obviously you're gonna have folks in any group that may decide not to take the vaccine, but 85% is pretty solid."

Another 19 state inmates over 70 who are being held in local jails across Louisiana have received the first dose, Pastorick said. Other inmates over 70 in local jails — the vast majority are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime, unlike in prisons — could be vaccinated soon as well, an effort coordinated by the Louisiana Sheriffs Association. 

Pastorick said DOC is strictly adhering to vaccine guidelines from the state Department of Health. In addition to people over 70, most health care workers are also eligible, including prison medical staff. That also includes any corrections officers assigned to areas housing COVID-positive inmates, Pastorick said.

So far, 465 prison health care and front-line staff members have received their first dose. More than 300 of them have also received a second dose, officials said. The department is in the process of vaccinating employees over 70 — including Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, who received his first dose Jan. 20.

DOC was unable to provide data showing the percentage of eligible staff members who have opted to receive the vaccine. Pastorick emphasized that it's strictly voluntary. The department is not offering incentives for staff members who choose to get vaccinated, besides the potential health benefits. 

The department prepared two separate informational videos about the vaccine, one for staff and another for inmates. Both offered a precise scientific explanation of how the vaccine works and debunked rumors about possible negative side effects. 

The inmate version emphasized that prison life will sooner return to normal — with family visits, expanded educational programming, club activities and mentoring opportunities — if a large percentage of prisoners opts to get vaccinated. DOC Medical Director Dr. Randy Lavespere said the minimal risks associated with taking the vaccine greatly outweigh the risks of catching COVID behind bars.

Similar efforts to dispel misinformation about the vaccine among prisoners are underway in many other states, said Dr. Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, an assistant professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-founder of the COVID Prison Project. Those efforts are especially important given the "long and justified history of mistrust" rooted in past examples of inmates being used as medical test subjects without their consent and other unethical practices, she said.

"For good reason there is distrust about vaccines and the prison system," Brinkley-Rubinstein said. But despite that backdrop, she said emerging data suggest prisoners are eager to get vaccinated against COVID, which bodes well for public health both inside and outside prison walls.

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.