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Marion County Starts Vaccinating Jail Inmates Against COVID-19

Inside the Marion County Jail medical unit.
Inside the Marion County Jail medical unit, where inmates who qualify under state eligibility criteria receive the vaccine. (Courtesy of Marion County Sheriff's Office)

Marion County Jail has begun vaccinating its incarcerated population for COVID-19 — making them among the first inmates in Florida to receive the shot. 

Starting March 22, the jail started vaccinating inmates older than 60 who meet the state’s vaccine eligibility criteria, said María Torres, Chief Healthcare Administrator for Heart of Florida Health Center. The health center contracts with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office to provide medical services to the county jail’s inmates. 

While more than 75 inmates qualified for the vaccine, 43 opted to receive it, Torres said. They received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.

“As public health advocates we wanted to cover inmates rapidly due to the fast turnaround in the jail,” Torres wrote in an email. She noted that if their J&J supply dwindles, they plan to secure doses of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Torres said they began to proceed with the second round of vaccinations after Florida’s age criteria for the shot dropped to 40 on March 29. An additional 510 incarcerated people at the jail now qualify for the shot under that age group.

More than 1,600 people were incarcerated at the jail as of March 31. The facility, which has no active COVID-19 cases among inmates, has seen a total of 287 positive cases since last March and no virus-related deaths, Torres said.

Marion County jail inmates join a small group of incarcerated people across the state to receive the vaccine. It remains unclear when any of Florida’s roughly 80,000 state prisoners will receive the shot, as Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to provide a plan for vaccine distribution to the facilities. 

DeSantis has refused to prioritize the state prison population ahead of other groups in his rollout plan. 

“The Florida Department of Corrections is ready to vaccinate as soon as supplies become available to our agency,” Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said in a statement. 

In Miami-Dade, about 161 jail detainees have received the vaccine. Seminole County has vaccinated 18 of its inmates. While a timeline is still unclear, Palm Beach County confirmed plans to begin administering the shot to its incarcerated population. 

Meanwhile, other county jails say they’re stuck in limbo waiting for the state health department to provide them doses for their inmates. Alachua County, Levy County and Putnam County currently have no plans to vaccinate their incarcerated populations.

“I would be very surprised if it’s a very high priority for the health department,” said Art Forgey, spokesperson for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.

Like Alachua, Levy County is also relying upon the health department to notify it when the vaccines are ready to distribute, said Levy County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Lt. Scott Tummond. 

He said the majority of inmates at the jail are between their mid-20s and late 30s, meaning they’d likely fall under the new state eligibility guidelines

“We’d want to be able to offer the vaccinations to this population,” Tummond said. “Until they have them available to supply, we’re kinda stuck.”

Alex is a reporter for Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, and can be reached at adeluca@freshtakeflorida.com.