Cook County Jail. Photo by Eric Allix Rogers, licensed under Creative Commons

On Monday, February 1, authorities started vaccinating people incarcerated in Cook County Jail for COVID-19, beginning with a small number of the most vulnerable residents. Approximately 150 of the more than 5,000 people detained in the jail had been vaccinated in the first three days of vaccine administration. Vaccinations for guards and staff at the jail started on January 20

Chicago receives its allotment of vaccines directly from the federal government and has a vaccine prioritization and distribution plan independent from the state’s. When Chicago entered phase 1b of vaccination on January 25, the city prioritized people incarcerated in the jail as phase 1b recipients, along with all other Chicagoans living in non-healthcare residential settings. This inclusion of incarcerated people in Chicago in phase 1b aligns with Illinois’s vaccine distribution prioritization plan, which also categorizes incarcerated people as phase 1b recipients. 

“We have been planning for months and have started with our highest-risk patients,” said Caryn Stancik, chief communications officer for Cook County Health and Cermak Health Services, the clinic in charge of administering vaccinations in the jail. “Ultimately, we look forward to offering vaccinations to all interested patients.” 

Vaccines are being distributed unit-by-unit in the jail, starting with units designated for incarcerated people with chronic health conditions. Unlike vaccinations in the outside community, those incarcerated in Cook County Jail do not need to be more than sixty-five years old to be eligible for vaccination. All jail residents are eligible for vaccination at this stage.

Vaccine education and administration are occurring simultaneously in the jail, given frequent changes in living units for the incarcerated population and evolving confidence in the vaccine within jail walls, officials said.

To assuage prisoners’ concerns about the vaccine, healthcare providers are providing in-person education in each housing unit. Immediately afterwards, incarcerated residents can express their interest in receiving the vaccineat which point providers retrieve refrigerated doses of the vaccine from the jail’s on-site pharmacy and administer themor decline to receive it. Written educational materials have also been distributed and posted throughout the jail in Spanish and English. 

Leadership at Cook County Health and the Illinois Department of Health jointly decided to administer the Moderna vaccine to those incarcerated in Cook County Jail. The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) will also be administering the Moderna vaccine to its residents, allowing for continuity of vaccination if someone initially incarcerated in Cook County jail receives their first vaccine dose in the jail, but is transferred to an IDOC facility before receiving the second dose.

If someone is released from the jail after receiving their first dose, but before receiving their second, they will maintain priority status for vaccination and will be eligible to receive the second dose on schedule. Like vaccine recipients in Chicago at large, people in the jail will receive a vaccination card once vaccinated and be given educational material on community and Cermak Health clinics where they will be able to receive the second vaccine dose if released.

If, at any point, someone incarcerated in the jail who refused vaccination changes their mind, they will receive the vaccine, whether they make that decision days or months after their unit has been vaccinated.  Cermak Health Services is still determining how to vaccinate new admittees to the jail, given that many bond out within a day. 

Currently, 5,338 people are incarcerated in Cook County Jail—about the same number as when the jail was the country’s top coronavirus hotspot. The number of detainees has increased by over 1,300 since last summer, when a targeted decarceration campaign put pressure on the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office to reduce the jail’s population. At its lowest point in May 2020, the jail’s population dipped to 4,026 detainees.

“From a justice perspective, we just haven’t seen a true effort to accelerate the resolution of cases and the opening of the courts, and that backlog of cases is just getting bigger and bigger,” says Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst and staff attorney at the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts. “Since March, we haven’t really looked through and motioned people’s cases up and put them in front of a judge and said, ‘does this person need to be in jail or on electronic monitoring,’ where people’s length of stay is getting incredibly long.” 

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office conducted an individual review of several thousand cases for release in March 2020, but has not conducted further reviews or engaged in any systemic decarceration efforts since.

Over the last year, ten people have died of COVID-19 while incarcerated in Cook County Jail. On January 17, José Villa, who had been incarcerated in the jail for nearly two years, died after being diagnosed with COVID-19. He was eighty-four years old. On December 23, Theodore Becker, who had been incarcerated in the jail for eight years, died after testing positive for COVID-19 while detained in the jail. Becker was sixty-four.

A federal class-action lawsuit demanding the release of people incarcerated in the jail that was filed in April 2020 is still pending. In response to the lawsuit, the Court of the Northern District of Illinois ordered Sheriff Tom Dart to strengthen social-distancing measures and sanitation at the jail. When the Sheriff’s Office appealed the decision, claiming that necessary measures were already in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the federal judge disagreed, stating, “staying the injunction would permit the Sheriff to lift measures and thereby again place the health of detained persons at serious risk. That risk cannot be discounted based on the Sheriff’s assurances alone. Again, a number of the measures he took were instituted only after the Court’s [temporary restraining order] or preliminary injunction.”

Nearly a year after the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in the jail, those incarcerated there say that conditions within the walls continue to facilitate the spread of the disease and make it impossible for residents to protect themselves—making vaccinations all the more imperative. 

“They have us in dorms, there is no social distance,” says Marion Johnson, who contracted COVID-19 while she was incarcerated in the jail in December 2020. “They’re lacking the proper soap, the hygiene products are not at all antibacterial, the masks that they give last a day and are very cheap. They had sixteen to twenty people to a dorm, it’s just horrible. There’s nothing you really can do in there.” 

Only after days of displaying symptoms and experiencing respiratory distress was Johnson hospitalized and transferred from the jail to Stroger Hospital, where she recovered from the virus.

Vaccinations in Cook County Jail have the potential to affect the trajectory of the virus’s spread throughout the city and curb infections across Chicago, because in addition to released detainees who may carry the virus, vendors and staff working in the jail travel in and out of the facility daily, potentially carrying the virus to neighborhoods across the city. While COVID-19 testing upon admission is now a standard practice in the jail, no similar practice exists upon release, which could further facilitate the spread of COVID-19 from Cook County Jail to the surrounding communities.

Vaccinating everyone held at the jail will likely take weeks, an effort that doesn’t have a firm end date due to the significant, regular turnover in the jail population.

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Kiran Misra primarily covers criminal justice and policing in Chicago for the Weekly. She last wrote about State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s strategy for prosecuting protesters arrested during last summer’s anti-racism and police brutality demonstrations.


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