Vials of the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo courtesy of Ochsner Health)

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections has completed the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations for every person incarcerated in a state-run facility over the age of 70 that wanted one — about 82 percent of the 460 eligible prisoners.

Ken Pastorick, a spokesperson for the department, said that the DOC was also currently coordinating with the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association to administer vaccinations to around 20 eligible state prisoners over the age of 70 being housed in local jails throughout the state, which he said should be completed “within the next couple of weeks.”

The vaccinations to portions of the general public have been ongoing for about a month. About a week after the state made vaccines available to members of the general public over 70, the state announced that the eligibility would apply to state prison inmates over 70 as well. 

It is unclear, however, whether or not vaccinations are being offered to pretrial detainees over the age of 70 housed in local jails and under the jurisdiction of local parish sheriffs, or how many of those individuals there are. A representative from the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and a spokesperson for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office were not immediately available for comment. Earlier this month, OPSO said that the city’s jail did not have anyone incarcerated who was over the age of 70.

Pastorick also said that 608 healthcare workers and frontline staff  — whom he described as anyone who might come in direct contact with people confirmed to have COVID-19  —  at state-run prisons had received their first vaccinations. That number is up from 297 earlier this month. By Tuesday, 294 of those employees had already received the second dose. 

He said that 20 other employees of the Department of Corrections who are over the age of 70 years old have opted to get the shot as well. 

Corrections officers in jails and prisons under 70 are not currently eligible for the vaccine under state guidelines, though they are slated to be up next, along with postal workers, teachers, and a number of other groups. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced earlier this month that prisoners would be included in any priority groups in the general population who become available for the vaccine. 

“As we open up priority groups for our general population we will vaccinate those same priority groups who are actually in our prisons,” he said at a press conference. 

But it does not appear that Louisiana will make people incarcerated in jails and prisons their own priority group to receive the vaccine, as the American Medical Association has recommended, and some states have done

Since the start of the outbreak, public health officials have warned that the virus would spread quickly in correctional facilities due to the inability for people locked inside to social distance from one another — and that warning was quickly proven founded. Criminal justice-focused news outlet The Marshall Project reported last month that over one in five prisoners across the country have tested positive for the virus.

In Louisiana, according to data from the Department of Corrections, 3,000 state prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, and 33 have died. 

With no comprehensive reporting on testing or outbreaks at local jails throughout the state, it is hard to know how bad it has gotten. In Orleans Parish, there have been several spikes in COVID-19 at the local jail, which at one point had over 90 confirmed cases of the virus. 

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...