RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Officials in the state’s prison system are considering offering incentives to employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine but are concerned about mandating it, even as the vaccination rate lags behind other state agencies.
Data released Friday shows offenders in the prison system have a much higher vaccination rate than the people working there.
About 69 percent of inmates are fully vaccinated compared to about 51 percent of employees. For the state as a whole, 63 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services.
Additional data released by the state this week shows the Department of Public Safety has the lowest vaccination rate among agencies under Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s authority. He recently implemented a new requirement that employees either get the COVID-19 vaccine or get tested weekly.
The vaccination rates ranged from a low of 53 percent for the Department of Public Safety to a high of 91 percent for the Office of State Budget and Management.
“The politics of this, you can’t ignore that. And, they go home and what’s occurring in the public and on the news,” said Dr. Arthur Campbell, chief medical officer for the state’s prisons. “Many of the staff were born and raised in the community where they now work in the prison. It’s very regional. So, we see a lot of the same regional alignments that we see across the state, depending on the county.”
Earlier this year, the prison system offered incentives to offenders to get vaccinated, including having their sentences reduced by five days.
Campbell said there are discussions underway about incentives for employees, but it’s unclear what those would include.
He said he and other medical experts with the state will begin operating a hotline next week for employees to call with questions. He said though the agency has held town hall events, some people may not feel comfortable bringing up their concerns in front of others.
He remains optimistic that Gov. Cooper’s executive order will drive more people to choose to get vaccinated.
“I really do believe the executive order, which I guess I’ll call it a soft mandate that the governor has put in place, I think that’s really going to prompt some people that may be on the fence to maybe look a little harder and hopefully get vaccinated,” he said.
Campbell said he’s also heard from employees who’ve even brought him studies on natural immunity and the level of protection people have from previously having been infected with COVID-19.
“One very big factor is the natural immunity factor that’s not really considered as much as it should be across the country,” he said. “They are educating themselves. Some of them have very legitimate reasons. That’s one of them.”
While Gov. Cooper has not gone as far as to mandate the vaccine for all employees, Campbell said he’s concerned about the impact that could have.
He said prison officials have discussed that with employees and found it could drive some of them to leave their jobs.
Staffing in prisons has been an issue for years, exacerbated by two deadly incidents in 2017 and the pandemic.
CBS17 recently reported the job vacancy rate in prisons is about 30 percent.
“There’s a not insignificant portion of them that may very well leave the job if a mandate were to be put in place. We’re seeing that across the country,” he said. “A full mandate, we do have some reservations.”
Even as the delta variant has spread and led to a surge in cases across the state, the percent of tests coming back positive in the prisons has remained well below what’s seen in the state as a whole this month.
Campbell said about 5.5 percent of tests have been coming back positive in the prisons. By comparison, Friday was the first time the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported a positivity rate below 10 percent all month.
“We never relented on any of our testing, on any of our mitigation measures, the screening coming into the prisons. We didn’t fully open up the prisons to visitors,” Campbell said.