Lehigh County Jail has vaccinated hundreds of inmates but some remain hesitant to get shots

Written by on September 8, 2021

Lehigh County Jail has vaccinated hundreds of inmates but some remain hesitant to get shots

by Tyler Pratt

September 8, 2021

Inmates were supposed to be among the first people to get access to COVID vaccines since they are a congregate population. But as the vaccine rollout progressed earlier this year, county jails across Pennsylvania were unable to get a supply for months.

That has changed. The Lehigh County Jail has since vaccinated hundreds of inmates, but corrections officials say there is still hesitancy.

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The Lehigh County jail has held two voluntary mass clinics with the Johnson & Johnson  vaccine since May, putting shots into 322 arms. Corrections Director Janine Donate said now they’ve switched strategies: they are waiting until they get enough inmates interested – about four or five – to use up a vial of vaccine.

“So it’s no longer the mass clinics that we did in the beginning to initiate the process but more of an ongoing maintenance program that we are doing within the jail,” Donate told the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners Court and Corrections Committee during last week’s meeting. 

Donate said every unvaccinated inmate who enters the jail is given education materials and offered a shot. But not everyone wants one.

“People have chosen either they are not going to participate and they don’t want it just like civilians do,” Donate said. “Or then they live among people that have gotten [the vaccine] and they’re like ‘Oh, you fared fine. You’re doing OK, so maybe I will get it.’” 

Donate says continually the jail provides education materials about the vaccines on the electronic tablets that inmates use to connect with the outside world. 

“So every time they log on they review all of those typical questions they might have,” Donate said. “We took stuff from the CDC and the most commonly asked questions our local health networks put out for the community.” 

Donate tells WLVR News the jail is not segregating the vaccinated from the unvaccinated. Last month, Pennsylvania state prisons began requiring inmates be housed based on their vaccination status beginning in August. State officials say the move is meant to protect the unvaccinated from being exposed to the virus and variants as they spread across the state. But the state rule doesn’t apply to county jails. 

“Logistically [vaccine segregation] is more difficult to accomplish because our population is fluid and we have classification considerations that must be maintained which adds to the challenge,” Donate said. 

The latest numbers from the Lehigh County Department of Corrections show that currently there are no active COVID cases among the jail’s roughly 700 inmates. 

To date, nearly 300 inmates have tested positive. One corrections officer and one inmate died. 

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