Eighteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Carlton County jail has managed so far to avoid an outbreak.
Of the roughly two dozen people incarcerated in the jail daily, just two have tested positive for the coronavirus, along with one worker. That’s fortunate, because in the close quarters of a jail, a contagious virus can spread quickly.
Public health specialist Holly Compo, who works in the jail, said they’ve followed state and federal guidelines — including wearing masks, quarantining anyone with symptoms in single cells and offering the vaccine to both jail inmates and staff.
Compo estimated that nearly three-quarters of jail employees are vaccinated, but she doesn't know for sure.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
"We're not mandating, and we're not officially tracking,” she said.
Unlike state prisons, which are operated by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, jails are under the authority of county sheriffs, who set their own policies.
Since September, employees at Minnesota's state prisons have been required to show proof of vaccination for COVID-19, or submit to weekly testing.
But only two Minnesota counties — Hennepin and Ramsey — have a similar requirement for county employees.
Most, like Carlton County, are taking a more restrained approach by providing opportunities and sometimes incentives for employees to get COVID vaccinations, but not requiring or tracking them.
“There's no systematic collection,” said Rebecca Shlafer, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “It's like a hodgepodge across all 87 counties, which is wildly problematic.”
Shlafer is helping lead a project aimed at increasing COVID vaccinations among staff and people incarcerated in prisons and jails, which received funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Finding data on the vaccination status of people incarcerated or working in Minnesota jails is challenging, Shlafer said.
"You can't ask the sheriff's association, ‘Hey, how many of your jail staff across the state are vaccinated?’ They have no idea,” she said.
In August, Shlafer’s team surveyed jail staff across Minnesota to gauge their attitudes about vaccination. Of the 189 respondents from 26 counties, nearly 70 percent had already received a COVID vaccination.
But most of those who had not gotten a vaccine said they didn’t intend to. Some voiced concerns about potential side effects, or said they didn't think it was necessary. Others cited misinformation about the vaccine's safety.
“They were absolutely not going to get it for a variety of reasons,” said Ingie Osman, a public health professional at the University of Minnesota and the project’s director. “And a really big reason that people had stated was really a lack of trust in the systems recommending the vaccines.”
From the survey results, the University of Minnesota team came up with some ideas to help boost vaccinations, including offering incentives or having credible health care professionals address misinformation. They also suggested that prisons and jails emphasize how getting vaccinated aligns with their public safety mission.
Vaccine hesitancy is concerning in jails, where people come and go more frequently than prisons, Shlafer said.
“It's not just about folks in the jail that are getting infected,” she said. “Those staff get infected. They go back to community, they go back to their churches, they go back to their kids' schools. And then we see this spread of infection.”
As of Oct. 22, there have been 1,358 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among people incarcerated or detained in Minnesota jails, and 661 cases among jail staff since the start of the pandemic, according to the state health department.
Sherburne County experienced a recent outbreak in its jail in Elk River. Sheriff Joel Brott said they contained it by quarantining people in negative pressure cells that help control the spread of infection.
Brott said the county has been following health department guidelines to keep the virus at bay, including wearing masks and cleaning thoroughly. And they've offered both jail employees and inmates the opportunity to get vaccinated.
Brott said he got the vaccine himself. But he said he doesn't know how many of his staff have done so, and doesn't believe in pressuring them about it.
“They've come to work for nearly two years, every day, and wear the appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment),” Brott said. “And now, to try to force something on them, I think is just wrong. I think it's really a personal choice between them and their doctor.”
Amanda Larson, the county's health and human services director, said the reluctance among some staff to get the vaccine reflects attitudes in the wider community.
"I don't know if it's specific to our jail population,” she said. “I think it's the normal Sherburne County, central Minnesota, vaccine hesitancy. People don't like the government telling them what to do."
Larson said she’s concerned about high levels of transmission of the virus in the community, not specifically in the jail. She said her staff is working to share accurate information about the vaccine, and the county is offering a $50 gift card to anyone in the community who gets vaccinated.
In Carlton County, Compo also said she tries to dispel myths about the vaccine’s safety. But some employees have made up their minds not to get it, she said.
"I've heard some staff [say] that if it is mandated, they won't probably continue working here,” Compo said.
What could change the situation is the Biden administration's order that large employers ensure that their workers are vaccinated or test them weekly.
County officials say they're waiting to see whether that requirement will include those who work for local governments — including in jails.