‘They don’t deserve to die’: Texas jail waited 7 months to offer COVID-19 vaccine

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Melinda Long says she’s dealt with her son’s mental illness and drug addiction for nearly 15 years. She spent most of that time fearing drug use would kill him. Her only relief over the years was during his repeated stints in jail and rehab.

“We knew he wasn’t getting the meth and the drugs, and he wasn’t hurting anyone,” said Long.

Long’s son, a father to three boys, was booked into the Williamson County jail in November 2020. But this time, what Long feared would kill her son was spreading inside the walls of the Williamson County jail.

“Fear that he is not going to make it out,” said Long. “Fear for the other families.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the Williamson County jail has reported outbreaks of COVID-19 among the jail population – not unlike other jails in Central Texas. One of its outbreaks is still ongoing.

The outbreaks don’t just impact the jail population. Since March 2020, more than 9,000 people have been booked into the Williamson County jail. Just as many have been released in the same amount of time. Many of those were released before vaccines were available in the Williamson County jail.

Despite earlier outbreaks, the jail administration in Williamson County waited nearly seven months after the vaccine was first made available to the medically vulnerable and those older than 65 in Texas to offer them to people housed in the jail.

Assistant Chief Deputy Kathleen Pokluda leads the corrections division for the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. Pokluda said the vaccines were first offered to the jail population on July 26 of this year — a time when vaccines had gone from being available to those with preexisting conditions to available for those as young as 12.

It also came as the jail was experiencing a growing outbreak of COVID-19. At the end of July, Pokluda reported 29 people housed at the jail with positive cases and 14 staff members who also tested positive. Over the course of the pandemic, six people had been hospitalized due to complications of COVID-19. (At the time of this report, Pokluda said cases in the jail were down to 12.)

Pokluda said the months-long delay in offering the vaccines was because the jail administration only wanted to offer the Johnson & Johnson, which was harder to get at the time than Pfizer and Moderna, she said.

“We had it out of the jail from February until we saw this uptick. We had no COVID, so it wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t an issue,” said Pokluda. “We had talked about it, but we had decided we wanted the J&J.”

Two months after the vaccine became available to people 65 and older and those medically vulnerable — on Feb. 19 — Travis County jail started offering its jail population the COVID-19 vaccine. In March, Hays County began offering the vaccine to its jail population. Bastrop County jail followed suit in April.

Some jails, like those in Blanco and Llano County, say they still do not offer the vaccine to those housed in their jails. Both agencies report having no cases of COVID-19 in the jail throughout the entirety of the pandemic.

In an email statement, Llano County Sheriff Bill Blackburn said, “We’ve been fortunate in that we have not had a single case of COVID-19.”

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has been tracking COVID-19 cases at county jails in the state throughout the pandemic, including data showing the number of confirmed and suspected deaths related to COVID-19. But the commission says it stopped requiring agencies to report the data in June.

The last report from June 14 shows 88 people had an active positive COVID-19 test at jails across Texas. Nearly 4,000 people inside Texas jails were being quarantined. The report confirmed 24 deaths due to COVID-19.

Jails in Central Texas also differ in how they screen people coming into the jail. While Travis County quarantines all newly booked people in single-occupancy cells for the first 10-14 days, Williamson County jail’s policy is to quarantine any individual who both refuses a COVID-19 test and is showing symptoms.

“Now when the outbreak happened – we weren’t doing temperatures, but now we are back to doing temperatures every day. We do it twice a day – temperatures,” said Pokluda. “We have caught people that way, because that may be all that they have.”

Long’s son was released from the Williamson County jail in early August. He’s now in a rehabilitation facility, she said. His mother says he was one of the more than 60 people housed in the jail that chose to get a COVID-19 shot. It was offered to him for the first time just two weeks before his nine-month sentence ended.

“They don’t deserve to die,” said Long. “That has been the thing I have prayed would not happen. I know that I could not have handled it. I know his boys could not have handled it. At least they have that little bit of hope that their father can get better.”

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