TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—With eligibility continuing to expand locally, 15 incarcerated individuals at the Tompkins County Jail have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Going forward, anyone who becomes incarcerated at the facility will be presented with the option to receive the vaccine, though it will not be mandatory.

Tompkins County Undersheriff Jenn Olin said that all of the 46 people currently incarcerated at the jail had been given the opportunity to be vaccinated. About half of them were interested in receiving the vaccine, and Tompkins County spokesperson Dominick Recckio said this week that 15 of them had been given the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as of the afternoon on April 7.

Olin said vaccinations will continue Thursday, April 8.

Eligibility for the general public to receive the vaccine has been gradually expanding since late December in New York State, but a recent memo from Thomas Loughren, the state’s Commissioner of Correction, officially notified law enforcement that incarcerated individuals were eligible to receive the vaccine. They had to wait until after correction officers, health care staff and local correctional facility employees had already been deemed eligible. Inmates officially became eligible on March 31 after a judge ordered New York State to make them eligible in state jails and prisons following a lawsuit, calling Governor Andrew Cuomo’s exclusion of them “arbitrary and capricious.”

Olin continued that, going forward, anyone entering the inmate population will be presented with the opportunity to receive a vaccination, though due to supply, they will have to wait until there are five people who are prepared to receive the vaccine in quick succession to avoid wasting vaccine supply.

“The J&J vaccine comes in a vial that contains 5 doses,” Olin said. “According to the Health Department, once the vial is punctured, we have 6 hours to use it when properly refrigerated in between administrations and two hours if not refrigerated in between administrations.”

Outbreaks among jail populations have often popped up around the United States—including nearby—during the pandemic, though there have been no major outbreaks reported among Tompkins County’s jail population—which typically fluctuates between about 30 and 50 people.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the only vaccine widely available in New York that requires a single shot, different than Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines, which both require two shots spaced three or four weeks apart for immunity. The efficiency of the single-shot influenced the county’s decision to use the J&J vaccine with the incarcerated population: the frequent turnover of the population meant county officials were worried some people would get one shot but be gone when it was time for the second shot.

“We vaccinated individuals at the jail who wanted the vaccine once we had the Johnson and Johnson vaccine available,” Recckio said. “Because this is a transient group, and we couldn’t guarantee a second shot due to the transient nature, we decided to use J&J.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com