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No timeline for jail COVID vaccine as demand surges

Calhoun County Jail teaser

The Calhoun County Jail.

   Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade isn’t sure when COVID-19 vaccines will arrive for the hundreds of people now housed in the county jail, but he hopes it will happen soon. 

   “We’ve been blessed,” Wade said. “We haven’t had a lot of cases among inmates. But that could change tomorrow.”

   Alabama is still in the process of rolling out the coronavirus vaccine. Health officials last week announced they had provided shots for most local health care workers and first responders, and they began to offer shots to people age 75 and older. 

   All those groups are high on the state’s priority list for vaccination. Health officials last week said about 3,700 Calhoun County residents in those groups have had their first shot of the Moderna vaccine, which requires two doses to be most effective.

   There’s still likely a long way to go before those high-priority groups are completely immunized statewide. According to a Monday announcement from the Alabama Department of Public Health, there are 326,000 health care workers and 350,000 people over age 75 in the state. According to ADPH numbers, the state has so far received about 272,000 doses and administered only 87,000 of them.

   Jail inmates aren’t next on the list for shots, but it’s likely they’ll get the vaccine before a lot of other healthy Alabamians. The state’s vaccination plans have changed more than once in the past few weeks, but inmates — and other people living in group settings such as group homes or homeless shelters — come before most people aged 16 to 74 in the current plan. 

   Wade said he sees how that could rile some folks who are eager to get the vaccine. His own father, he said, is 74 — just below the age cutoff for last week’s round of shots. But the sheriff said he can see reasons to vaccinate inmates early. 

   “How people are ranked, that’s above my pay grade,” he said. “Inmates are truly captive. When you get 500 of them in here, there’s no social distancing.”

   The jail made it through the first few months of the pandemic without a single inmate case of coronavirus, the sheriff said. But an outbreak, if it happened, could spread quickly. And there’s a constant turnover of people coming into and out of the jail. Many don’t stay long.

   “A lot of people don’t understand the difference between a jail and a prison,” he said. “Most of the people here are only accused of a crime.”

   Wade said state officials haven’t offered him any estimate of when vaccines will be available for inmates.

  Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade isn’t sure when COVID-19 vaccines will arrive for the hundreds of people now housed in the county jail, but he hopes it will happen soon. 

   “We’ve been blessed,” Wade said. “We haven’t had a lot of cases among inmates. But that could change tomorrow.”

   Alabama is still in the process of rolling out the coronavirus vaccine. Health officials last week announced they had provided shots for most local health care workers and first responders, and they began to offer shots to people age 75 and older. 

   All those groups are high on the state’s priority list for vaccination. Health officials last week said about 3,700 Calhoun County residents in those groups have had their first shot of the Moderna vaccine, which requires two doses to be most effective.

   There’s still likely a long way to go before those high-priority groups are completely immunized statewide. According to a Monday announcement from the Alabama Department of Public Health, there are 326,000 health care workers and 350,000 people over age 75 in the state. According to ADPH numbers, the state has so far received about 272,000 doses and administered only 87,000 of them.

   Jail inmates aren’t next on the list for shots, but it’s likely they’ll get the vaccine before a lot of other healthy Alabamians. The state’s vaccination plans have changed more than once in the past few weeks, but inmates — and other people living in group settings such as group homes or homeless shelters — come before most people aged 16 to 74 in the current plan. 

   Wade said he sees how that could rile some folks who are eager to get the vaccine. His own father, he said, is 74 — just below the age cutoff for last week’s round of shots. But the sheriff said he can see reasons to vaccinate inmates early. 

   “How people are ranked, that’s above my pay grade,” he said. “Inmates are truly captive. When you get 500 of them in here, there’s no social distancing.”

   The jail made it through the first few months of the pandemic without a single inmate case of coronavirus, the sheriff said. But an outbreak, if it happened, could spread quickly. And there’s a constant turnover of people coming into and out of the jail. Many don’t stay long.

   “A lot of people don’t understand the difference between a jail and a prison,” he said. “Most of the people here are only accused of a crime.”

   Wade said state officials haven’t offered him any estimate of when vaccines will be available for inmates.

 First nursing home residents get vaccine

   Calhoun County offers a good example of the dangers of COVID to people who live in close quarters. More than 10,000 people in the county have had coronavirus as of Monday, but the death toll here has been higher than most counties with similar case numbers. Local officials have said that out-of-hospital deaths are responsible for the high toll, including people who are sick at home or in institutional settings such as nursing homes.

   As of Monday, the Alabama Department of Public Health counted 178 people killed by the virus in Calhoun County. 

   Nursing homes do seem to be making headway in the vaccination push. Unlike most other organizations, Alabama nursing homes get their vaccines directly from pharmacies, which send workers to the nursing home to administer them. Many local nursing homes had their first shots scheduled for the first half of January.

   “Everything’s going well, but I don’t have an exact number of people vaccinated,” said Deborah Littlejohn, infection control specialist at Piedmont Health Care. She said most residents at the nursing home got a first shot Jan. 4 and are expected to get the second dose Jan. 25. 

   John Matson, spokesman for the Alabama Nursing Home Association, said the organization doesn’t have a count of nursing home staff and residents vaccinated so far across the state.

Vaccine phone hotline swamped

Early on, health officials worried that resistance to vaccination would be a problem, but so far demand appears to be high. When ADPH last week announced a phone hotline for people age 75 to schedule appointments for shots, the number was flooded with calls.

Around 1.1 million people have called the line so far, ADPH officials announced in a press release Monday.

First responders and people age 75 and up can call 855-566-5333 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. seven days a week to set up appointments for vaccination. Appointment times are available no earlier than Jan. 18.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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