The Oregon Department of Corrections has been ground zero for some of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 across the state throughout the duration of the pandemic.

Despite that, vaccination rates have been relatively low among corrections staff. Prison officials estimate 50-55% of the agency’s 4,500 employees have received the vaccine — a number that union officials who represent DOC staff argue is closer to 70% or even higher.

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Regardless, it’s a figure that will have to increase as the governor’s Oct. 18 deadline for all state employees to get vaccinated draws nearer. If corrections staff decline, they could lose their jobs.

Gov. Kate Brown’s vaccination mandate comes amid yet another surge of COVID-19 brought on by the more contagious delta variant, which has filled intensive care units and emergency rooms across the state, testing the limits of the health care system.

Chain linked fencing topped by barbed wire surrounds guard towers and other prison buildings.

Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

“DOC employees are working hard to develop contingency plans to ensure the continued and orderly operations to the state’s prisons if DOC employees decide to retire or find other employment,” DOC spokeswoman Jennifer Black said in a statement. “DOC was understaffed prior to the pandemic and staffing has only gotten worse during the last 18 months.”

Black said the state’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, which licenses police and corrections officers, “does not require vaccinations of any of our public safety officers … so it is not a condition of employment.” That means the COVID-19 vaccine will be the only vaccine requirement for employment at DOC, according to Black.

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After receiving an initial dose of 400 vaccines for employees and prisoners working directly with COVID-19 patients, the state Corrections Department outsourced its vaccinations to the Safeway grocery store chain, making it harder to know which employees are vaccinated.

Corrections officers were among the first to get access to the vaccine because they work in congregate living settings where COVID-19 has spread quickly and with deadly consequences.

At times during the pandemic, several of the state’s prisons had large outbreaks of the virus. To date, DOC has recorded 3,600 positive tests among people in prison, and nearly 1,000 staff have reported to DOC they tested positive for COVID-19. Of those, dozens of people in custody died from COVID-19.

“The fact that after everything they’ve seen inside their own facilities that didn’t inspire them to get vaccinated, it’s unconscionable to me,” said Juan Chavez, a civil rights attorney who is currently suing the state over its response to the pandemic inside its prisons. “We had a mass casualty event in our prisons in the last year — 42 people died from COVID.”

The exterior wall and a guard tower at a prison.

Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The governor’s executive order mandating the vaccine for people who don’t have qualifying exemptions has raised concerns for unions that represent DOC employees.

“Our organization doesn’t think it’s the right way to get shots in the arms. There are other things they could’ve done with incentives … rather than coming down with an edict,” said Tim Woolery, staff representative of AFSCME, which represents most corrections officers and other prison staff.

“You’re forcing people to have that choice of getting a shot or losing their job, and that seems like a pretty dramatic action.”

Woolery added that AFSCME is in no way “anti-vax” and, like DOC, is encouraging all its members to get vaccinated.

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