Early in the pandemic, county jails and state prisons were home to numerous COVID-19 outbreaks.
Their congregate living conditions proved fertile transmission grounds for the highly contagious virus. The Illinois Department of Corrections has reported 4,397 cases confirmed among staff members and 10,864 confirmed cases among inmates since the pandemic began.
Illinois National Guard troops descended on state prisons beginning in mid-February, offering the vaccine to inmates and staff. Now, two months later, IDOC reports 69% of inmates have been vaccinated but only 36% of staffers have received the shot.
“There has been some hesitancy,” acknowledged Anders Lindall of AFSCME Local 31, which represents prison workers.
The union is now pushing out a video on social media meant to encourage more prison staff members to get the shot. The video profiles longtime IDOC employee Randy Hellmann who had transitioned to working full-time for the union when he contracted COVID-19.
“The last word he said before he went on a ventilator were: ‘Use me to tell the story of why people should get vaccinated,” Lindall recalled. “I don’t want anyone to go through what I did.”
Hellmann’s case is especially poignant since he was scheduled to receive the vaccine just days after he was diagnosed with CVO-19. He battled the virus for six weeks before dying in March. Hellman’s union is encouraging its members to get vaccinated.
While the Illinois Department of Corrections can’t force its workers to get the shot, it is working with the union to reinforce its importance.
“This messaging has been provided through videos, brochures, signage, email communication, social media, and more,” IDOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess told WGN. “We plan to continue providing education to help build confidence and trust in the vaccine.”
AFSCME’s Lindall said there isn’t one single reason behind his members’ hesitancy to get the vaccine. He said some are skeptical of its safety while others who have had the virus think they have immunity, even though it’s unclear how long that immunity will last.