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In Spite of Vaccine Availability, N.H. Jails Continue to Face COVID Outbreaks

Valley Street Jail in Manchester, N.H.
Zoey Knox / NHPR
Valley Street Jail in Manchester, N.H.

Most county jails in New Hampshire are continuing to practice COVID safety measures, but COVID-19 outbreaks continue.

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The state currently has at least two active outbreaks in jails. In most facilities, estimated vaccination rates among people incarcerated there are far below what health officials recommend.

At the state's largest jail, the Hillsborough County Department of Corrections in Manchester, three units are under quarantine and awaiting COVID test results. The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services said that as of Wednesday, 38 incarcerated people and six staff had tested positive for COVID.

Jail superintendent Willie Scurry said that 21 percent of the people incarcerated there are vaccinated. The last time the jail hosted a vaccine clinic was in June, but it says it will host another one later this week.

Most county jails offer the COVID vaccine more consistently. But even in some of those jails, vaccination rates remain relatively low, increasing the risk of transmission and serious illness among people in jail.

“People are skeptical of the penal system,” acknowledges Jason Henry, the superintendent of the Rockingham County Jail. Henry says the skepticism, combined with most incarcerated people’s young age, makes them less likely to request the vaccine while behind bars.

Jail officials told NHPR it was hard to keep track of vaccination rates among staff and imprisoned people, given high turnover and voluntary disclosure of vaccination status. Henry estimates the rate of COVID vaccination among those incarcerated is between 40 to 50 percent, higher than many other jails surveyed by NHPR.

At the Cheshire County Department of Corrections in Unity, Superintendent Doug Iosue has been encouraging everyone to get vaccinated for months.

He added small incentives to staff, including allowing people with proof of vaccination to skip the temperature check in the daily COVID symptom screening.

But more than a year into the pandemic, the jail had its first outbreak of COVID-19 this month, in spite of a 48 percent vaccination rate among incarcerated people and what Iosue calls rigorous procedures for screening and isolating new people incarcerated in the Cheshire County Facility. Isoue said of the 13 cases among incarcerated people in the jail, there’s only been one breakthrough case. The 12 other cases involved unvaccinated people.

73 percent of staff are vaccinated and Iosue wants it to be higher. But he even if he was able to mandate vaccines for staff, he says it might not be an effective measure in increasing vaccination rates.

“There’s a certain amount of oppositionality to it anywhere you go,” he says. “Your guess is as good as mine as to how to get through to people and influence that behavior. I wish I knew.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the most recent number of active positive cases at Valley Street Jail.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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