State has enough flu shots for every inmate, but no mandates

Arizona officials are urging people to get flu shots this fall to avoid the double threat of flu and COVID-19, which they fear could overburden state hospitals. But the state's vaccination track record is not great, with just 42.6% of adults getting flu shots last year. (Photo by NIAID/Creative Commons)

The state’s push to increase flu vaccinations amid the novel coronavirus pandemic means there will be increased efforts to distribute flu shots to a variety of at-risk populations, including Arizona inmates.

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry has enough flu vaccines for the nearly 39,000 inmates in their care, spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said. 

“Due to COVID-19, ADCRR is working to expand on the typical yearly flu vaccination efforts for inmates and staff,” Lamoreaux said. “Every inmate will be offered the flu shot through an immunization clinic scheduled to begin soon, and go through the end of the month.” 

Flu vaccines are offered at no cost to inmates, Lamoreaux said. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been 2,599 cases of the virus within ADCRR facilities and 17 confirmed deaths. Another 11 deaths are listed as “potential” coronavirus fatalities. 

The flu has been a major concern for public health officials who are concerned with how the virus could interact with COVID-19, and Arizona’s prison health care has been the subject of a yearslong lawsuit that has found the state and its contractors have violated the constitutional rights of prisoners by providing substandard care.

“Their medical care has been absolutely abysmal for about a decade,” Corene Kendrick, a staff attorney for the non-profit organization Prison Law Office said. 

Kendrick and others had been engaged in a lawsuit which led to a settlement that ensured that ADCRR and its contractors offered annual flu shots to all inmates, among other things. 

However, in 2019 when members of the Prison Law Office toured the Browning Unit at the Eyman facility, they found that the flu vaccine hadn’t arrived until December. Flu season typically begins in October and often peaks between December and February.

Prior to the lawsuit, flu shots were limited to inmates who were considered at-risk and over the age of 60. Other inmates could not request a flu shot. 

Currently, any inmate who wants a flu shot in Arizona prisons can get one. ADCRR could not provide information on historical vaccination data, but reiterated it has secured enough vaccines for this flu season. 

Health agencies across the country have been stocking up on the vaccine in preparation for the flu season as experts are concerned about how it may interact with COVID-19. That’s especially true in Arizona in the wake of last year’s flu season, which was considered one of the worst on record. 

A 2009 study by researchers found that the inmate population and the greater community outside is more connected when it comes to the flu. 

“We must begin to think of jails not as separate from the community but as collections of workers and detained persons who have a constant connection with the surrounding community,” the study says. “Thus, the boundary between jails and the community is relatively porous—what affects those behind the bars also affects those on the outside.” 

Many of Arizona’s prisons are in health care provider shortage areas, or HPSAs. Almost 40% of Arizonans live in one of these designated areas, meaning that access to health care is severely limited. 

The state prison in Douglas is a designated HPSA and many of the rural areas where the prisons are located also fall within HPSAs. 

“We are looking directly at a serious potential healthcare crisis,” said John Fabricius, a former Arizona inmate turned criminal justice reform advocate, adding that if correctional officers bring the flu into the prison, it could spread rapidly and interact with COVID-19 and create strain on hospitals or health care workers in the area. 

Arizona prisons won’t require correctional officers or other staff to get flu vaccinations. ADCRR did not respond to questions about whether contractors will be required to get flu shots.

“While the vaccinations are not mandatory for staff or inmates, the availability and importance will be robust and widely communicated to everyone,” Lamoreaux said. 

Making the flu shot mandatory for guards would likely prove a difficult task in Arizona, which is considered a fiercely anti-vaccination state. Several state lawmakers have openly stated their distrust and opposition to vaccines

“All that kind of stuff you see outside politically is kinda concentrated in there,” Fabricius said, adding that, even with “the removal of the pay barrier. it was still difficult to get people to go up there and take it.” 

“You have no idea what somebody has done or has not done that you are working right next to,” Fabricius said.