SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s inmates are slated to get the coronavirus vaccine in March, part of a second wave following medical workers, teachers and patients in long-term care facilities.
Utah’s prison system and its county jails will get to decide who in their custody is first in line for the shots, said Tom Hudachko with the Utah Department of Health. And while the state is not requiring anyone to get the vaccine, it’s possible jailers may set their own terms.
Sheriffs and prison officials in the Beehive State haven’t yet laid out any specifics for how they plan to immunize thousands of inmates across the state. As cases spike inside the facilities, advocates are calling for outside investigations into their pandemic preparations and response.
More than 1 in 4 of Utah’s roughly 4,100 prison inmates are considered to have active cases after the virus erupted at its Draper site in late September and later spread at its more remote Gunnison location. Still more in the state’s county jails have tested positive for COVID-19.
Nine men at the Utah State Prison in Draper — most within the Oquirrh 5 facility for older inmates and those with health issues — have died after testing positive for the virus.
Whether through family members or on their own, several inmates at the prison have described a lack of monitoring and medical care for those confirmed to have the virus, including for one of the men who died.
“This raises a lot of disturbing questions about the kind of care that was being provided — that is being provided — to medically vulnerable people who test positive, or to other individuals who just happen to have a really bad case of COVID-19,” said Sara Wolovick, an attorney with the ACLU of Utah.
Wolovick estimates she fielded nearly 50 calls from inmates in Draper who shared concerns during November alone. Her organization is now calling for an outside investigation into Utah’s prison system.
“There really needs to be independent oversight and investigation to this,” Wolovick said.
The Department of Corrections has pushed back, saying it is making sure all who seek treatment are evaluated and cared for.
“We are fully staffed, from a medical standpoint,” Clinical Services Bureau Director Tony Washington said in an online briefing on Dec. 9. “We don’t have a lack of staff or medical resources, so there’s no need to entertain that thought.”
The prison has brought on nurses to help care for inmates at its Draper location and in Gunnison, Washington said, and it is not billing those with COVID-19 for their treatment. Inmates who need more serious attention are transported to University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, he said, although they can be sent to another hospital if the ICU is too crowded.
Several corrections officers have also come down with the virus.
Of a total of 242 prison employees who tested positive for COVID-19 to date, 50 have not yet recovered, according to the prison.
Hudachko anticipates the state’s corrections officers will get the vaccine sometime in January alongside others working in so-called protective services, including firefighters and police.
Utah health officials have emphasized that the timeline is subject to change based on availability of the vaccine.
Since March, prosecutors and defense attorneys throughout the state have hammered out agreements to release low-level offenders from jail in order to prevent the spread of the virus. The Utah State Prison has sent home more than 1,000 inmates early, but social distancing isn’t a possibility for those who remain.
A study from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice released last week found 12 of every 100 people in prison infected with or recovering from COVID-19, compared with three in 100 U.S. residents.
Calvin Hansen, a 30-year-old inmate who contracted the virus while at the prison’s Promontory facility in Draper, said it has exacerbated his asthma and rendered him feverish for several weeks.
He continues to struggle to breathe when he hops off his bunk and tries to walk around, he said, but the prison cleared him as a negative case without testing him again.
And while he’s seen a mental health provider, he said his requests to have a doctor check out his lungs have gone unanswered.
Still, Hansen said he believes getting a vaccine could help open doors for him if the prison grants his early release in April like it has for other inmates within six months of a parole date.
Hansen has long worked in auto shops and plans to obtain an automotive engineer certification so he can open his own business.
“If we can get the vaccine, that means I can go to college and get a job, and maybe have some success,” he said.