Until there is a state-issued mandate calling for the vaccination of everyone at the Department of Corrections, the agency will not institute a requirement that a person must be inoculated against COVID-19 if they wish to continue working at any of Michigan’s prisons.
Concerns have been voiced by prisoner advocates about the inmates’ vulnerability to COVID-19 though currently case levels are low.
MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz said the decision by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to not mandate that the personnel of any specific state agencies be vaccinated is the guidance which their staff is operating under.
Some within MDOC’s ranks are required to be vaccinated, but only those working out of a secured unit at Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson where the serious medical problems of prisoners are treated.
MDOC staff working there are mandated by Henry Ford to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, as the hospital mandates all who work in their facilities be inoculated.
“We’re one department of many, and the governor has made statements that … she’s not going to mandate the vaccine for state employees,” Mr. Gautz said. “Now, certainly, we have done everything and more to have our staff get vaccinated – and we want all of our staff to get vaccinated.”
He further emphasized that a mandate wouldn’t simply extend to corrections officers but all who are under MDOC’s employ from maintenance and food service personnel to members of its administration and people who enter facilities to teach inmates.
Asked how many MDOC employees were vaccinated against the virus, he couldn’t say. He cited a decision made by the state earlier in August – driven by advice from the Department of Attorney General – to not release information regarding if an employee has or has not been vaccinated as to why he couldn’t answer that question.
He did, however, note that a little over 65 percent of the state’s inmate population is inoculated.
Yet, even if the department wished to break rank with the rest of the state and implement its own vaccine requirement – it couldn’t.
Kurt Weiss, communications director for the State Budget Office, said that even if a department were to try and implement its own vaccine requirements the Office of State Employer would not approve the mandate.
As of September 1, the most recent data available, there are 23 active COVID-19 cases throughout MDOC facilities with the bulk of them being at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia. The amount of active staff cases is also not known.
Mr. Gautz credited the low case rates not just to a good inoculation rate among inmates, but vigilance exhibited by staff at the department, saying that masking and social distancing work to enhance how much the vaccine protects you from the virus.
“The vaccine helps protect the person vaccinated from getting ill, being hospitalized and possibly dying … any business could mandate that their employees be vaccinated, but that won’t stop them from spreading it,” he said, in reference to COVID. “You stop spreading it by wearing masks social distancing, which we have been mandating for the last 17 months and which we will continue to do.”
Mr. Gautz continued: “If the goal is to stop the spread, we’ve been doing that. If the goal is to get higher vaccination numbers, then we’ve been doing that too by making it available to our inmates and our staff.”
To date, 4,524 staff have contracted COVID-19 and six have died. For inmates, 26,733 positive cases have been reported, as have with 143 deaths. The last inmate death occurred on July 28.