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NC prisoners get new COVID-19 boosters at a rate 3½ times higher than everyone else. Why?



RALEIGH, N.C. News — For nearly every demographic group in North Carolina, the push for new COVID-19 booster shots has been remarkably slow.

Except for one: Offenders locked up in state prisons.

Those inmates have received the new bivalent booster at a rate 3½ times higher than that of the general population, according to data from the N.C. Department of Public Safety (DPS).

Officials say 56 percent of fully vaccinated offenders have received the bivalent booster — way ahead of the pace for those on the outside, where just 16 percent of eligible people have gotten the new shot, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Offenders have been outperforming many other groups in getting the shots for much of the two years since the vaccines have been available.

More than two-thirds of offenders have received the primary series — with some no doubt influenced by an incentive program that included sentencing credits for some — compared to just 63 percent for everyone else.

“We’ve been up front with folks,” said Dr. Arthur Campbell, chief medical officer for the state’s prisons. “We’re in a little bit of a different environment. We’re in a bit of a constrained environment where folks interact with each other, and they really talk to each other about what they’re doing. And they saw the impact this could have, not only on their health, but also on the things you’re allowed to do in the prison.”

Those high rates might help to explain how low some other key COVID numbers are in the 53 facilities run by the Division of Prisons: There were just over 3,600 new cases among offenders in November — but none of them required hospitalization, DPS data showed.

The success story among offenders is a stark contrast to what’s happening on the outside. The Biden Administration has launched a six-week push to get more Americans boosted with the possibility of a winter wave looming.

Less than half of residents in the state’s nursing homes — among the most vulnerable — have received the new booster shot, and fewer than 1 in 5 staff members at those facilities have been boosted, according to the American Association of Retired Persons data last month.

Behind bars, the turnout has been so strong that there was no need to revive the incentive system that wound up shaving more than 134 collective years of time off of offenders’ sentences. 

“I don’t know that at this point incentives would drive that number up any more than it already is,” Campbell said.

A final count of 9,828 offenders received five-day sentence credits between March 2021 and March 2022, DPS spokesman John Bull said.

That works out to a total of 49,140 days — or 134 years — behind bars that won’t have to be served. Offenders were prohibited from getting out a few days early if that reduction dropped that sentence below the state-ordered minimum.

Another 28,325 inmates received cash incentives such as $5 toward a canteen purchase, Bull said.

“You have to look at this very holistically,” Campbell said.

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