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COMMENTARY | And prison guards, and jail workers, and anyone else charged with protecting the public’s safety.
President Joe Biden announced last week that his administration will require nursing homes to vaccinate their employees against COVID-19 or risk losing Medicare and Medicaid funding. These workers care for especially vulnerable individuals residing in high-risk, congregate settings—and unfortunately, their current rate of vaccination is far too low to protect those with whom they work. Mandating vaccination of nursing-home employees is a lifesaving, commonsense policy, and Biden should now apply its logic to a variety of workers in other fields who similarly interact each day with other vulnerable populations: employees of jails, prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, and police departments.
Like nursing homes, each of these institutions relies heavily on federal funds. They have also been repeatedly responsible, since the beginning of the pandemic, for many of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in the world. Not only has this reality harmed incarcerated people, but for 18 months, COVID-19 has also been by far the greatest threat to the safety of police and prison guards. At least 114,000 prison workers have gotten COVID-19, more than triple the rate of illness seen in the general population. In spite of this, prison administrators have failed to successfully achieve high rates of vaccination among their staff; in most states that report these data, less than 50 percent of prison staff have reported getting a shot.
Likewise, police officers across the United States have refused en masse to receive a vaccine. Although comprehensive data are difficult to come by, as many departments are refusing to track or report their employees’ vaccination rates, the majority of police officers in large U.S. cities (including Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles) remain unvaccinated, and rural police departments are likely to have even less vaccine uptake. This is despite abundant opportunity, after police unions advocated for early access to the vaccines, which the CDC appropriately granted to both police and prison staff while conspicuously neglecting incarcerated people, who are at even greater risk.
These especially high rates of vaccine refusal by public employees who ostensibly serve in the interest of public safety put incarcerated populations and overpoliced communities of color at continued, preventable risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. Ultimately, these employees risk putting everyone else in harm’s way too. Outbreaks in jails and prisons inevitably spill over into surrounding communities, as seen repeatedly with tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. COVID-19 is no different: At least hundreds of thousands of cases—and very likely several million, along with thousands of deaths in the U.S.—are attributable to community spread associated with outbreaks that began in jails, prisons, or ICE detention centers. Neglecting incarcerated people’s welfare multiplies disease and amplifies epidemics, causing harm for everyone.
This problem is not going away. The Delta variant is now fueling a resurgence of COVID-19 in jails, prisons, and ICE facilities across the country. The best tool we have to mitigate and prevent these outbreaks is a combination of decarceration and mass vaccination. The consensus among public-health experts has long been that policy makers must substantially reduce the number of incarcerated people in the U.S. to relieve crowding in jails and prisons. People packed into poorly ventilated 6-by-8 prison cells or dorms with multiple bunk beds, sharing a single toilet and sink, cannot practice social distancing. Thousands of elderly people lie in beds in prison hospices, dying in prison as a result of harsh mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. Following basic ethical and safety reasoning to release the most vulnerable and elderly incarcerated people at the outset of the pandemic could have greatly reduced prison outbreaks. But these calls for decarceration have been largely ignored by policy makers.
In the resulting epidemiological context of intense crowding and poor social distancing, high rates of vaccination are essential to prevent outbreaks in prisons and jails. It is now very clear that we cannot achieve the necessary rates of vaccination among staff without government intervention. Leaving vaccination policies to law enforcement, including unions such as the Fraternal Order of Police, is an abdication of government responsibility to protect the public. Rather than helping address the COVID-19 crisis, these groups have issued threats of mass resignations if officers are required to get a vaccine. Such threats betray the hollowness of claims that U.S. policing and mass incarceration operate to serve public safety and illustrate the dangers of allowing these systems to exercise extensive power over the rights and welfare of the public.
The federal government must now act to make all federal funding for police departments, state departments of correction, and county jail systems contingent upon universal vaccination among their workers except for those who have a legitimate (and audited) medical reason for exemption. This could be achieved via a combination of executive orders by Biden and action by the Department of Justice to introduce vaccination-related changes to eligibility requirements for receipt of federal dollars. (Such actions by a president and the Department of Justice have precedent, including Donald Trump’s changes last summer, via executive order, to federal-funding eligibility requirements for law-enforcement agencies. Trump’s order was regressive, racist, and counterproductive, but it nonetheless illustrates the fact that Biden holds power to impose sweeping changes on law-enforcement agencies.) Despite the inevitable pushback with which it would be met from conservative media and police unions, such decisive action is necessary to protect public health and safety.
To appreciate the dynamics at play and the stakes of federal intervention, consider the fact that every single day, police officers perform thousands of welfare checks in the homes of those who are elderly, sick, or disabled—people who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. They also arrest thousands of people—many unvaccinated—whom they then load into their police cars, typically process in local stations or lockups, and then transport in groups via vans to jails. Once at jails, people wait in crowds indoors, in many cases caged tightly together in bullpens, to be processed and admitted to cellblocks where they then spend their days and nights in close proximity to others in poorly ventilated spaces. These conditions make epidemic control all but impossible. Indeed, one of the highest-known rates of coronavirus transmission documented anywhere in the world was observed in a U.S. jail.
If even just one police officer or jail staff member involved in this chain of events gets COVID-19, he is likely to seed an epidemic among those detained and, subsequently, the communities to which the detained return after jail stays that typically last only a few days or weeks. This is why police officers’ and guards’ vaccination status cannot reasonably be regarded as just a matter of personal opinion or individual preference. Their choice not to get vaccinated has direct and deadly consequences for countless people, including their own household members as well as vulnerable incarcerated people and highly policed Black, Latino, and unhoused communities, in which people have no choice but to interact with unvaccinated officers.
The Biden administration must stand up to irresponsible opposition from police and their uncritical enablers in popular media and national politics. Now that the FDA has issued full approval for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, there is no good excuse for the federal government not to act, as it has done with the military and most recently nursing homes, to require all police, jail, ICE, and prison staff to receive a vaccine in the coming weeks.
These changes won’t come without a fight. Cities and states that have issued vaccine mandates for public employees are already seeing aggressive pushback. Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara, for example, quickly responded to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s announcement of a mandate by saying, “We don't want to be forced to do anything. Period.” (Police unions have also long opposed basic accountability structures for addressing abuse, violence, and killings committed by police.)
In this ongoing period of public-health emergency, Americans need their elected leaders to find the courage to stand up to any backlash. President Biden must act to hold police, jail, prison, and ICE employees—the majority of whom have demonstrated their willingness to put the rest of the country in danger—accountable to the public interest that supposedly justifies their jobs.
Eric Reinhart is a medical and political anthropologist, psychoanalyst, and resident physician at Northwestern University. He is also a researcher in the Data and Evidence for Justice Reform program at The World Bank.
Amanda Klonsky is a research and policy fellow at the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project. She is also a lecturer at the University of Chicago.