Colorado Offered Prison Staff $500 To Boost COVID Vaccinations Two Months Ago. Around 40% Remain Unpoked

Corrections officers were among the second group to get early access to coronavirus vaccines late last year. Sgt. Eric Olsen jumped at the opportunity.

“I also wanted to do the right thing for the rest of society and not just protect my health, to protect other people’s health too,” Olsen said.

The 51-year-old works primarily in the infirmary at the Denver Reception Diagnostic Center, a smaller-capacity, mostly temporary stay facility. Olsen got the vaccine because he trusted the science. But the vast majority of his colleagues have not been as eager.

“A lot of people were thinking that there’s not enough reward for the risk of the unknown,” he said. “I think that corrections mirrors a lot of the society, so just like in regular society, a lot of people have their doubts and have their trepidations about (the vaccine).”

On March 29, CDOC announced a $500 incentive for staff who already have or would get fully inoculated. It’s about a tenth of the average monthly salary at most facilities.

“After they’ve been seeing other people who’ve gotten shot and they’ve seen that it’s perfectly safe, and then they’ve gotten a little bit more of an enticement, a lot of them thought, ‘Okay the reward is worth the risk now,’” Olsen said. “So they decide to (get vaccinated).”

“I couldn’t tell you why one facility, why those staff decided to take it more than another,” said CDOC Director Dean Williams in an interview with KUNC three weeks after the incentive’s announcement. CDOC holds regular clinics for its staff and gives paid time off for side effects.

The department has a moral and legal “obligation” to boost their vaccinations, Williams said, because “the virus comes from the outside to the inside of the prison.” He notes it’s a two-way street, with a risk that staff can bring the virus out into their communities from the prisons too.

How well is the incentive working?

Experts are mixed on how well monetary vaccine incentives actually work. In the two months since CDOC’s bonus was introduced, vaccinations for staff who regularly work in the correctional facilities only increased about 15%, remaining just over half in total. (The overall percentage is higher if you include the department’s parole officers, headquarters office staff and other people who work for CDOC without regularly going into correctional facilities.)

“But I’ll say this: I think everything we can do to incentivize, no matter where we land on it, was and is the right thing to do,” he said. “Because it’s a critical component of closing the chapter on this pandemic.”

The incentive is a “a good short-term solution to increasing vaccination rates in 24/7 facilities,” Hillary Glasgow said in an emailed statement to KUNC. Glasgow is executive director of the union that represents correctional staff and other state employees, Colorado WINS. She added the union has “been focusing on outreach and education about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, because that’s the best way to make sure people are confident about getting immunized.”

Incentives vs. mandates

Some experts worry the lure of large sums of money would be unethically coercive for people with economic difficulties. CDOC’s program is designed to be “more persuasive,” Williams said.

“If people don’t like the idea of an incentive, you have to think: okay, so what are the alternatives?” said Dr. Matthew Wynia, director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz. “Because in the end, for many vaccines we have, if the vaccine is important, we have had to implement mandates in order to keep people vaccinated over time.”

Wynia points to the lack of major measles or mumps outbreaks as evidence that past vaccine mandates are working. But he also warns mandates may further politicize the vaccines.

“If we want to maintain herd immunity over time, we’re going to have a mandate at some point,” he said. “Or if you don’t want a mandate, you try and incentivize people to internalize that positive external benefit of herd immunity.”

While cash incentives might be a coercive carrot, Wynia said, a workplace mandate is a very coercive stick.

“We know that at this particular time, we’re not in a position to mandate it or force it,” Williams said. “The incentive was one more card to play in terms of convincing people and the wisdom of this.”

“Well, throughout corrections, we’ve been really concerned that it would be mandatory,” said Sgt. Eric Olsen of the Denver Reception Diagnostic Center, referring to conversations within the union, Colorado WINS, about the vaccine. “It should be a choice. It should be an educated choice. We want to be protected, but we don’t want to be guinea pigs.”

He hopes his fellow employees will “do the right thing” and decide to get the vaccine of their own volition as more time goes on.

“I was really worried when the pandemic first started because a lot of my coworkers have families,” Olsen said. “I have an elderly mom and I have a sister who has some health problems… I’m still very concerned about it and I’m going to be concerned about it until the virus is completely gone.”

Dustin White is one of the hundreds incarcerated at Sterling Correctional Facility in northeast Colorado who got sick with COVID-19 during a massive early pandemic outbreak.

“Talking to him is really hard,” Kim White, Dustin’s mom said. Ever since he got sick in May, Dustin has been experiencing tremors. He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome at 17, a rare disorder that causes his immune system to attack his nerves. But this side effect is new. “I mean, his eyes twitch all the time and he shakes quite a bit.”

In November, a massive second COVID spike hit Sterling as the rural northeastern community surrounding it exploded with outbreaks. Incarcerated population cases more than doubled. Staff cases grew as well, but the numbers are nowhere near even.

“You know, because they don’t really get visitors or anything. It had to be from the (corrections officers) bringing it in from the outside,” she said.

Due to the Guillain-Barre syndrome, White said, doctors think a vaccine would likely put Dustin in the hospital. So he isn’t getting one. She hopes herd immunity and general COVID-19 precautions will keep him safe during his next two years of incarceration.


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