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"Science has thrown us a lifeline": North Carolina prisons give COVID-19 vaccine to inmates and staff

States struggle with COVID-19 vaccine rollout
State governments voice concerns over COVID-19 vaccine rollout 07:19

Inmates and staff at North Carolina's prison system began receiving doses of the COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, officials said. The state's Department of Public Safety said it has received around 1,000 doses of Moderna Inc.'s vaccine.

The vaccinations will be offered to prison healthcare workers, staff working in COVID-positive housing units, those who work with infected inmates, and inmates age 75 or older. The next in line will be inmates aged 65 and older based on availability.

"I urge everyone to get vaccinated," Todd Ishee, the state's Commissioner of Prisons, said in a statement. "This is our best shot to protect the health and safety of our colleagues and their families as well as the men and women in our custody. Science has thrown us a lifeline. Everyone should grab ahold."

The coronavirus has ravaged correctional facilities across the country. Advocates have argued that prisons should be a top priority for vaccination efforts because social distancing is nearly impossible and medical care can often be substandard.

COVID Vaccine Prison
Airman First Class Emily Riddles of the North Carolina Air National Guard prepares a COVID-19 vaccine shot at Raleigh's Central Prison on January 21, 2021. North Carolina Army National Guard/Sergeant Jamar Marcel Pugh

There are more than 355,000 confirmed cases among inmates across the country, with over 2,080 deaths, according to UCLA's COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. Over 79,000 prison staffers have been sickened by the virus, with 126 deaths.

In North Carolina alone, there have been 9,414 positive cases among inmates. Staff cases have not been reported. There are more than 29,000 inmates housed in state prisons, which employ about 14,000 workers. 

Four prisons — Central Prison and the Maury, Alexander and Scotland correctional institutions — will act as vaccination hubs. Healthcare staff at each prison will initially administer the vaccine, but future doses will be handled by "vaccine strike teams" made up of nurses and staffers who have already been vaccinated.

COVID Vaccine Prison
Central Prison in Raleigh on January 21, 2021.  North Carolina Army National Guard/Sergeant Jamar Marcel Pugh

Sara J. Totonchi, executive director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, said North Carolina ranks among the top states with high COVID-19 cases among inmates. "It is imperative that the state works as quickly as possible to vaccinate as many incarcerated people who are willing to be vaccinated," Totonchi told CBS News. "North Carolina's approach to addressing the crisis must be multifaceted and include a significant reduction in prison population alongside vaccinations."

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