By Paul Kiefer
Nine months into the campaign to vaccinate people held in King County’s three detention centers, jail health staff have fully vaccinated more than 2,000 people. The effort shows no signs of abating. But with cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus surging in Seattle and King County, the risk of serious outbreaks among jail inmates and staff is also far from over.
As of Monday, December 27, the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) recorded twenty new COVID-19 infections among people in custody. The new cases mark one of the largest spikes since the department’s vaccination campaign began in March, when nearly 50 inmates tested positive for the virus in a span of three weeks. After several smaller surges over the summer, infections in the jails remained consistently low from mid-September until last week, when the latest surge began.
The population of the jails turns over frequently. In the first half of 2021, the average inmate spent just over a month in custody. The constant flow of new arrivals, combined with the transmission risk posed by guards and jail staff, makes it difficult to completely curtail the spread of the virus behind bars. In total, DADJ has recorded 355 cases of the virus among inmates since the pandemic began. However, as a result of the pandemic, King County’s jails also hold far fewer people than in the recent past. Since the start of the pandemic, the county’s inmate population has fallen by nearly a third, with 1338 people in custody as of last Tuesday.
When a person arrives at a jail in King County for booking, health staff test them for COVID-19 and offer them a chance to get vaccinated. When the vaccination program began at the end of March, 101 inmates received vaccines in the span of a single week. After a surge of takers in April and May, the pace of vaccination slowed; since June, health staff have vaccinated an average of 291 people per month.
Because of the high turnover, it has been a challenge for jail staffers to keep pace with the county’s overall vaccination rate, which recently passed 75 percent. The vaccination rate behind bars hovered around 50 percent for much of the summer, although it has risen to 65 percent as of this week.
“The people we serve have as many questions as anyone else about the COVID-19 vaccine,” said King County Jail Health Division Director Danotra McBride. “A significant portion of our incarcerated patients have been hesitant to receive the vaccine since it first became available, but we’re happy to see hesitancy decreasing over time.” To boost the vaccination rate among the incarcerated population, jail health staffers have begun offering vaccines to inmates during every clinic visit, and jail administrators have brought infectious disease experts to talk with people in custody at the jails in Seattle and Kent.
The arrival of the Omicron variant in King County—which, as of last Tuesday, made up a third of the county’s total recent infections—creates a new challenge for the county’s jail population and health workers. The new variant is more resistant to existing COVID-19 vaccines, presenting a challenge to jail health staff just as the vaccination campaign began to pick up steam once again.