Neuse Correctional Institution located in Goldsboro. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

After repeated requests from Carolina Public Press to provide complete data on COVID-19 vaccinations, the state prisons have not accounted for more than 200 vaccine doses. 

The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state prisons, qualifies as a vaccine provider through the Department of Health and Human Services. Since Jan. 20, DHHS has allocated 6,900 doses of the Modera vaccine to DPS, which has administered it to 4,119 prison staff and 2,559 incarcerated people, according to DPS spokesperson John Bull

In total, that leaves 222 doses unaccounted for. If DPS left the doses “unused, spoiled, expired or wasted,” the department would have to report it to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, per the vaccine provider contract. Bull did not explain the discrepancy.

CPP first asked DPS about a similar discrepancy in its reported numbers of administered vaccines on Feb. 4. 

Instead, Bull directed CPP to ask for vaccination numbers during DPS’ weekly press calls. 

But the vaccines are not fully distributed and administered by the time of the call each week, leaving several hundred doses unaccounted for week after week. The current count is the most accurate and detailed description DPS has offered to date while leaving out key details. 

By state guidelines, the only incarcerated people currently eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 are people over the age of 65. But DPS has vaccinated over twice that number, though it’s still a relatively small percentage of the 30,000 people in the state’s prisons. 

Vaccine rules shift

North Carolina originally gave people in prison and prison staff higher prioritization for vaccinations, a decision praised by public health experts. But the state has since deprioritized prison staff and inmates twice

DPS was able to redefine its staff from “front-line essential workers,” which are in Group 3 of vaccine distribution by state guidelines, to “health care workers,” which are in Group 1, with DHHS’ approval. 

DPS officials have said that health care workers and correctional officers working in prisons with active COVID-19 outbreaks have gotten vaccinated, though the department has not provided data showing how many vaccine doses have gone to high-risk staff and how many have gone to prison administration.

In addition to those DPS has vaccinated, another 634 staff members have self-reported being vaccinated by other providers. 

The early vaccination of more prison staff and inmates may be in the public’s best health interests, but it is not clear what logic DPS is using to vaccinate people. Bull did not answer questions about which people in prison were being vaccinated or why. 

DPS has released scant details of how it decides whom to vaccinate and when, following a plan that Todd Ishee, the commissioner of prisons, called “flexible and scalable.” But the only version of the plan that has been released to date lacked almost any detail and was almost immediately outdated, making it impossible for the public to know what public health logic, if any, is driving DPS’ decisions. 

Racial breakdown of vaccinations

DPS officials provided other information on the Friday call, including addressing concerns about a racial discrepancy in who is getting the vaccination. 

The prison population is 40% white, 51% Black, 2% American Indian, 5% Hispanic and less than 1% Asian, according to DPS’ numbers. 

In the relatively few people in prison who have been vaccinated so far, 48% have been white, 44% Black, 2% American Indian and 3.5% Hispanic. 

“The vaccinations are roughly proportional to the overall offender population,” Ishee said. “We are not seeing any glaring disparities of offenders who have been vaccinated.” 

According to DPS’ data, 54% of the people in prison ages 65 or older are white, and they should account for at least half of the incarcerated people who have been vaccinated to date. That could help account for the slightly higher rates of vaccinations among white inmates so far. 

This week, DPS will receive 1,300 more doses of the Moderna vaccine, mirroring the amount it received in its first week of vaccine allocation. All of this week’s doses will be used to provide the second shot in the vaccine regimen. DPS officials say they expect this mirroring to continue over the next several weeks until everyone who has received a first dose will get the second on schedule. 

Editor’s note:

Carolina Public Press published this article on Feb. 16 at 11:06 a.m. At 9 a.m. on Feb 17, John Bull, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, provided additional information on vaccine allocation. To-date, DPS has received 6,900 first doses of the Moderna vaccine. DPS was able to get additional doses out of some of the vials and has vaccinated more than 7,100 prisons staff and inmates, according to Bull.

On Tuesday, CPP filed questions and a public records request as a follow-up to this article. In response, Bull notified CPP that, “Not a single vaccine has been wasted, damaged or unused,” by DPS.

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.