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COVID-19 vaccination rate in North Dakota prisons tops 70% — far ahead of general public

About 72% of state inmates have been fully vaccinated against the disease as of Friday, May 21, said Dave Krabbenhoft, the director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That inoculation rate within prisons ranks as one of the nation's highest, said Prison Policy Alliance spokesperson Wanda Bertram.

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The North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck. Korrie Wenzel / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — After a year of pandemic-induced turbulence in North Dakota's prisons, inmates have put the facilities on a clear path to normalcy as they have accepted the COVID-19 vaccine at much higher rates than the general public.

About 73% of state inmates have been fully vaccinated against the disease as of Tuesday, May 25, said Dave Krabbenhoft, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That inoculation rate within prisons ranks as one of the nation's highest, said Prison Policy Alliance spokesperson Wanda Bertram.

Meanwhile, inoculation rates outside of prison walls have stalled, sowing doubt among public health experts that the state will reach the estimated 70% threshold needed to achieve herd immunity against the virus.

Krabbenhoft credited his department's successful immunization efforts to a mix of incentives for inmates, strong communication about the vaccine and a shared common goal to restore pre-pandemic quality of life in the facilities.

“When you’re a resident in one of our correctional facilities, your normal life — or as normal as it can be when you’re incarcerated — was disrupted, and I think people realized that and see (vaccination) as a path to getting to the new normal as quickly as possible,” Krabbenhoft said.

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The department tied vaccinations to opening up in-person visitation for inmates, allowing those who opted for the jab to see their loved ones for the first time in about a year, Krabbenhoft said. Visitation is now available to unvaccinated inmates, except in the women's prison in New England, N.D., which has not yet surpassed an immunization rate of 70%.

Vaccinated inmates are also exempt from weekly COVID-19 testing, and requirements on wearing protective equipment like face masks are starting to be relaxed, Krabbenhoft said.

The agency has provided educational information about vaccines, including holding town hall discussions where medical experts answered questions from inmates, Krabbenhoft said. Full transparency was key to winning over inmates, he added.

Health officials have said misinformation is broadly to blame for vaccine hesitancy in North Dakota and across the nation. Krabbenhoft said even incarcerated people have exposure to that kind of erroneous messaging through cable television and phone conversations with family members.

The department does not track vaccinations for guards and other officers, but Krabbenhoft estimated they have rates around 50%, which is more in line with the general population. He said he wished that number were higher, but it's a matter of personal privacy for officers.

Immunizing inmates prevents illness and ensures the facilities aren't overwhelming nearby hospitals with COVID-19 patients, Krabbenhoft said.

Bertram said even a 73% vaccination rate is "not enough" due to the heightened risk of catching COVID-19 behind bars.

The corrections department has a solid track record during the pandemic with just one resident death from the disease, but Krabbenhoft said the agency will continue encouraging vaccinations to assure no one else succumbs to the virus.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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