Somerset-SCI tour 4

An inmate uses the phone inside the residential treatment unit at SCI/Somerset on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.

Vaccination levels continue to lag for corrections staff at several area state and county prisons, reflecting a troubling statewide trend.

But is the problem apathy or inconsistent accounting?

In announcing this week that the Cambria County courthouse would not be returning to pre-pandemic practices anytime soon, President Judge Norman Krumenacker pointed to low vaccination rates by staff at the county jail as one contributing factor.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Cambria prison board, Warden Christian Smith said 30 of the jail’s 115 employees – or 26% – had received COVID-19 vaccines.

Krumenacker said the number could be as high as 38 employees – still just 33% – which moved the judge to say: “That’s beyond my wildest imagination. I don’t want to start transporting prisoners from the jail to the courthouse. I don’t wish to open up Pandora’s box.”

After touring the State Correctional Institution at Somerset and the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands on June 2, reporter David Hurst heard a similar story for vaccinations of state prison staff – 24.8% at SCI-Somerset and 31.4% at SCI-Laurel Highlands, based on Department of Corrections data.

As meager as those numbers might be, the local prisons are ahead of the statewide rate of 21% – with SCI-Fayette (10%) and SCI-Albion (8%) pulling down that number – according to the DOC.

By comparison, more than 70% of the inmates at the two state prisons in Somerset County had been vaccinated against COVID-19 – a higher rate than seen in the county’s public population.

SCI-Somerset Superintendent Eric Tice said management can’t force staff to get vaccinated.

“I’m a firm believer in personal choice,” he said. “It’s their decision to make. It’s on us to continue educating them and offering them the opportunity to get vaccinated.”

However, he also noted that employees are “the variable” for infection levels within the penitentiary – because they’re the ones coming and going with risk of external exposure to the virus.

The exception would be inmates transferred in for medical treatment at SCI-Laurel Highlands, which has had 500 staff or inmate virus cases, Correctional Health Care Administrator Jennifer Schrock said.

Tice said: “We’re the ones bringing this virus into the prison and we’re the ones who can take it home ... without even knowing it.”

He and Major of Guards Jeff Shaffer said they know of staff who have gotten vaccinated on their own, meaning the state statistics aren’t accurate.

John Eckenrode, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, blamed Gov. Tom Wolf’s rollout plan for vaccines – which he notes did not prioritize shots for prison staff when vaccines first became available.

“There was never a policy from the Wolf administration to vaccinate all corrections officers, even though we clearly should’ve been a priority and repeatedly asked for priority status,” he said in a statement shared by the Harrisburg public relations firm La Torre Communications.

“Many of our members, including myself, went and got vaccinated on our own,” Eckenrode said. “They don’t collect that data, so there really isn’t a way to quantify how many officers have been vaccinated.”

That point is valid. The state should include in its data those officers who have been vaccinated outside the prisons where they work – and the corrections association should gather and supply accurate figures.

We call on the PSCOA and the DOC to work together to accurately track all prison staff who have been vaccinated – by the state or on their own – and to educate and motivate the rest to get the shots for the sake of their places of work and their own families.

At the county level, Krumenacker said the Cambria courts will continue to require individuals attending hearings to be masked, and will continue to employ teleconferencing technology to minimize in-person interaction and to limit prisoner transports.

“I’m going to follow the science more than the politics,” Krumenacker said.

The biological science says vaccines are bringing down the levels of COVID-19 in our communities and allowing for a return to more normal activities.

It’s not rocket science to hypothesize that we need a greater commitment to vaccines for those who work in our jails and prisons.

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