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Virginia prisoners, once left out of vaccine plan, have now all been offered a dose

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photo_ft_news_deerfield correctional center assisted living

A picture of the assisted living ward at Deerfield Correctional Center that the Virginia Department of Corrections shared with lawmakers in 2019. The prison, which houses some of the state's most medically fragile inmates, saw a major COVID-19 outbreak.

Nearly 70% of people incarcerated in Virginia prisons have received a first dose of coronavirus vaccine and more than half have been fully vaccinated, according to state officials.

“All inmates and staff have been offered the chance to get the COVID vaccine at this point,” said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Kinney.

Prisoners in Virginia were initially left out of Virginia’s vaccine rollout plan, but Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration ultimately included them in phase 1b, giving them the same priority as people aged 65 and older, people with preexisting conditions and frontline workers, including prison guards.

The prison system began vaccinating prisoners in January, offering free email stamps (fees inmates pay to send emails), telephone credits and snacks to inmates who agreed to take the vaccine.

So far, the vast majority have, with 16,070 of the more than 23,000 people incarcerated in state facilities receiving their first shot as of Monday. Kinney said the vaccine remains available to new inmates and people who initially refused it.

Prisoners and their family members received the vaccine’s arrival behind bars as a relief. The virus ravaged the state’s prisons, infecting more than 9,000 inmates and killing 56 — a rate of spread far higher than the state’s overall figures.

Incarcerated people described bleak conditions at the height of the spread, with wards of sick inmates on lockdown, limited medical staff to care for them and barely functioning kitchens, which are typically staffed by inmates.

As of Monday, the state was down to 14 positive cases among inmates — a number lower even than infections among staff, 27 of whom the department lists as actively infected. (The department said all DOC staff have also been offered the vaccine at this point and 6,510 had received at least their first dose.)

The facilities are still in various stages of lockdown and, as in most states, in-person visitation by family is still barred. The wife of one inmate at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center, Trish Gibson, said that unlike most other elements of the facility’s pandemic response, the vaccination rollout at least “wasn’t awful.”

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