It's been more than a month since Liz Vierling of Owatonna was able to see her fiancé face to face, or take her kids to visit their dad.
Both men are incarcerated in the Moose Lake state correctional facility. But in-person visits at Moose Lake and some other state prisons have been suspended due to positive COVID-19 cases.
Vierling said it's frustrating. The majority of prisoners at Moose Lake — including both her fiancé and her ex-husband — are vaccinated, but many staff who work at the prison and live in the community are not.
"People are always saying, ‘Oh, it's the inmates bringing it, the inmates transferring it.’ It's not the inmates,” Vierling said. “They don't get to go anywhere besides stay in their units or go outside to the yard.”
Outbreaks of COVID-19 sickened hundreds of people in Minnesota state prisons last year. Twelve died.
Prisons and jails are difficult places to control a highly infectious disease. There's little social distancing, and people in prison share living quarters and common areas.
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Early this year, the Department of Corrections began offering the COVID vaccine to its staff and people incarcerated in state prisons. As of this week, about 80 percent of prisoners have been fully vaccinated.
This week, a Ramsey County judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of state prison inmates, alleging that the Corrections Department moved too slowly on vaccination efforts.
Judge Sara Grewing noted that by April, the department had offered the vaccine to all inmates who wanted one, and has made efforts to convince vaccine-hesitant people to get the shot.
But the department has been less successful in convincing its own employees to get the vaccine. Among all Department of Corrections staff, the vaccination rate is just over 65 percent, and at some prisons, it's lower.
Fewer than 60 percent of staff at Moose Lake and St. Cloud have gotten the shot. At Rush City, it’s fewer than half.
Paul Schnell, state corrections commissioner, said he’s “deeply concerned” about the department’s vaccination rates.
"We know that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people can bring the virus into the population,” he said. “But we know that that risk goes down greatly when people are vaccinated."
Earlier this month, a new mandate took effect requiring all Minnesota state employees working in the office or on site to either be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing for COVID-19.
Schnell said his department is testing about 1,400 unvaccinated staff members on a weekly basis.
He said they’ve encouraged staff to get the vaccine by providing information and answering questions, and urging them to take advantage of a recent $100 state incentive.
“We've done so much to really try and encourage people to participate in vaccination,” he said. “The data tells us that your risks are far lower of contracting either serious illness or death if you're vaccinated.”
In a statement, Julie Bleyhl, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, which represents correctional officers, wrote that while the union does not support mandatory vaccinations, “we continue to highly encourage all eligible Minnesotans to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to protect yourself, co-workers and loved ones.”
Schnell said there have been small numbers of recent COVID cases among people in prisons. Some were people entering the state correctional system for the first time after sentencing, he said, while others were breakthrough cases, or asymptomatic people caught during routine sentinel testing.
While the number of COVID cases among prison staff isn't huge, Schnell said they have had younger employees who've gotten seriously ill and been hospitalized. He said positive cases are affecting staffing levels needed to operate the prisons.
"If you have one shift [where] 75 percent or 80 percent of that shift is unvaccinated, what ends up happening is close contact and somebody brings it in, and they're positive,” he said. “Now what ends up happening is we have the vast majority of one particular shift that is unable to work."
Programs on pause over outbreak concerns
Outbreak concerns also have kept on hold educational, work and other programs for people in prison, which advocates say are important for their mental health.
Antonio Williams is a former inmate and member of the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. He also serves on a state advisory board aiming to boost vaccination rates among prison populations and staff.
Those groups have different reasons for refusing the vaccine, Williams said.
"From the staff point of view, it's not trusting in the science,” he said. “From the prisoner point of view, it’s not trusting in the prison. Anytime there’s a mandate or a strong suggestion coming from the DOC, it’s always viewed with suspicion.”
Williams said convincing people in prison to get the shot has been easier. They have incentives to get vaccinated, like not having to quarantine after being exposed to someone with COVID-19 unless they're experiencing symptoms or test positive.
And he said people in prison don't have access to social media, so they're more shielded from misinformation about the vaccine.
But Williams said some staff — especially at prisons in parts of Minnesota where the community vaccination rate is lower — have made up their minds not to get the vaccine.
"We're dealing with people who don't believe COVID is that serious,” he said. “They don't believe they're really putting their own family at that big of a risk."
States across the U.S. are seeing similar trends, said Erika Tyagi, a senior data scientist with UCLA Law's COVID Behind Bars project, which is tracking vaccine and case numbers.
"You're seeing higher infection rates and continued outbreaks amongst incarcerated people who across the board are vaccinated at higher rates than staff,” Tyagi said. Prisons also are adopting lockdowns or other restrictions and canceling programs for people who are incarcerated, she said.
Tyagi said testing unvaccinated prison staff weekly may not be frequent enough to stop the virus' spread.
“By the time you show up ... as a positive COVID test, that’s too late in terms of the number of people you could have infected, especially in a congregate setting like a prison,” she said.
Schnell said keeping people healthy through vaccines and tests is important to be able to restore programs and open up prisons to visitors. He said his department will keep encouraging both incarcerated people and employees to get the shot.
“I would love to see everybody who can be vaccinated be vaccinated,” he said. “Because I think it will ultimately reduce risk and in our setting — the close nature of what happens inside of a prison — I think it’s really important.”