Almost half of Iowa’s prison employees have refused COVID-19 vaccine, despite deaths

By: - January 28, 2021 11:49 am

The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that the state is not wrongfully detaining sex offenders by delaying the treatment they must complete to be considered for parole. (Photo by Alex Potemkin/Getty Images)

Almost half of Iowa’s prison workers are refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections.

That percentage is similar to numbers recently reported at Iowa nursing homes and the state-run Iowa Veterans Home.

Department of Corrections Director Beth Skinner told the Board of Corrections earlier this month that as of Jan. 8, only 52% of the department’s prison staff had agreed to receive the vaccine, despite attempts to educate workers on the benefits of the vaccine.

“We surveyed our nine prisons and what we found out is that about 52% of prion staff want the vaccination,” she said. “It’s not mandatory. It’s not required.”

Skinner said the DOC initially received 1,300 doses of the vaccine and began giving them to workers on Jan. 7.

“The staff that we have started with in our first round of vaccinations are those that are working in health services, our medical staff that are working directly with these individuals who are incarcerated, and with our critical staff — the ones that are working, you know, our correctional officers working in the COVID units,” she said.

Skinner told the board that in November, two Department of Corrections employees died of COVID-19: Robert J. Vidimos, 58, who had worked at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women for one year, died Nov. 16; and Michael Teachout, 63, a 15-year employee of the department who worked at the Clarinda Correctional Facility, died Nov. 28.

“In order to honor our staff we had a moment of silence and lowered the Corrections flag from dusk to dawn, and we presented the families with Corrections flags,” Skinner said. “But I do want to say, on a positive note, that our (infection) numbers are looking better.”

Skinner said she’s not sure why so many workers are refusing the vaccine.

“I have not heard from anyone in terms of why they don’t want to take the vaccination,” she said. “I mean, I hear some people, like, anecdotally say that it’s too new, they want to make sure it’s safe — things like that … It’s really hard to tell why people are not wanting to take it — you know, like, half of our staff. I think that’s probably pretty consistent with what we’re seeing nationally with other correctional agencies, as well. So we’ll just continue, and people might change their minds in a month.”

Dr. Jerome Greenfield, the DOC’s top health care administrator, told the board part of the problem might be the proliferation of misinformation about the vaccine.

“You know, the internet just pours out stories all the time,” he said. “There might be an element of truth to some of those things, and some of it could just be absolutely farcical.”

At a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds declined to say whether Iowa should require employees at state-run health care facilities to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Kelly Garcia, the head of the Iowa Department of Public Health said she wants to make sure the state’s health care workers are “comfortable” with the vaccine and are making “the decisions that are best for them.”

“Right now, we are not making it a condition of employment, and that really is to give everyone an opportunity to make the choice,” Garcia said. “We have other ways that we will certainly incent individuals taking it at our state-operated facilities … You know, education is really key to this. We want to make sure our employees feel comfortable and have all of the material available at their fingertips to make the decisions that are best for them.”

During her press conference, Reynolds indicated that about 90% of Iowa’s nursing home residents have agreed to get the vaccine.

“The rate has been a little bit lower among staff during the first phase — that is averaging about 50%,” she said. “However, when I talked to our pharmacy partners this week, they are seeing about a 30% increase in staff choosing to be vaccinated during the second phase.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.