Coronavirus

Florida Prisoners Lack Access to COVID Boosters Amid Omicron Uptick

While boosters have been offered in Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) facilities for several months now, some prisoners have been repeatedly unable to receive the dose.
While boosters have been offered in Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) facilities for several months now, some prisoners have been repeatedly unable to receive the dose. Photo by Florida Department of Corrections
Update, January 21, 2022: Kim White tells New Times that her son received a booster shot a few hours after she spoke at the Florida Senate Committee on Criminal Justice on Tuesday, January 18.

During the Florida Senate Committee on Criminal Justice's January 18 meeting, a Central Florida woman named Kim White took to the lectern to share her son's experience with the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) healthcare system as a newly incarcerated person.

"Maybe if we had a state-run system, my son would have already gotten his COVID booster," White said, as she criticized the state's private healthcare provider, Centurion Health, "which he has requested and not gotten."

As the Omicron variant spreads across the United States and vaccine effectiveness wanes over time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has encouraged residents to get their booster shot. More than 4.6 million people in Florida have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster. While the shots have been available to Americans since September and offered in FDC facilities for several months now, three people with either a significant other or child in FDC facilities tell New Times that as of early January, their incarcerated loved one had not received their booster shot despite repeated requests.

This comes amid a sudden uptick in COVID-19 cases across FDC facilities: On December 27, FDC officials told New Times there were only nine cases across its facilities. On January 19, FDC spokesperson Molly Best told New Times there were now 220 cases — a 2,300 percent increase in less than a month.
click to enlarge Kim White speaks at the Florida Senate Committee on Criminal Justice's January 18 meeting about her son's difficulty getting a COVID-19 booster shot in prison. - SCREENSHOT VIA THE FLORIDA CHANNEL
Kim White speaks at the Florida Senate Committee on Criminal Justice's January 18 meeting about her son's difficulty getting a COVID-19 booster shot in prison.
Screenshot via the Florida Channel
Across the U.S, data on booster shots in prisons is hard to find, if it exists at all. Only 22 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons currently provide vaccination data for incarcerated people, according to Prison Policy Initiative.

Florida, which began offering vaccines to prisoners in April 2021, was among the last states to provide vaccines to incarcerated people. It's unclear how many prisoners in FDC facilities have received a booster shot, or when the rollout for booster shots began. FDC declined to provide New Times data on booster shots.

Best told New Times that vaccine status documentation is recorded on paper medical records, and that "each record would need to be reviewed" in order to determine those figures. She added that FDC is in the process of transitioning to electronic medical records.

After White finished speaking during the Tuesday morning meeting, Sen. Jason Pizzo of North Miami Beach said he would ensure that White's son received a booster shot by Friday afternoon, as long as she was comfortable sharing his information.

"I appreciate it," White replied to the senator. "I want him to stay safe."

But other incarcerated people, including Dawn Taylor's boyfriend, haven't been as fortunate in securing their booster shot. As a nurse practitioner, Taylor says the delay in her boyfriend receiving his booster shot has been especially frustrating and scary. She asked New Times not to publish her boyfriend's name or the facility he is in for fear of retaliation from prison officials.

Her boyfriend, who has been incarcerated in Florida for several years, received his first and second vaccine doses as soon as they were available last spring. She says he receives weekly messages from FDC advertising a free booster shot and has requested it twice since November, to no avail. However, in the last four months, he was transferred to a new facility. Taylor says he has been repeatedly told that Centurion Health is "not getting the shot" at his current facility.

"I mean, for God's sakes, we're giving out N95 masks for free now," Taylor tells New Times. "Why can't we get boosters that have been around for five, six months now to our incarcerated population?"

In response to New Times' request for comment, Best stated via email that FDC would ensure boosters for any prisoner who wants one and "hasn't received it yet."

"If you have the names of the of the inmates who are wanting a booster shot...please send them to us and we will have someone from medical contact them as soon as possible," she wrote.
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Alex DeLuca is a staff writer at Miami New Times.
Contact: Alex DeLuca