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COVID-19 vaccine begins to arrive at Roanoke-area jails

COVID-19 vaccine begins to arrive at Roanoke-area jails

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Vaccines are slowly starting to roll out to inmates in jails around the Roanoke Valley.

The vulnerable jail population, which has virtually no options for distancing, became eligible for vaccination last month with the launch of Phase 1b in Virginia, but it wasn’t immediately known when the first doses would be shipped.

The valley’s largest jail received its first round of shots last week, and was able to give initial doses to 250 people out of its current headcount of about 800 inmates.

The Western Virginia Regional Jail, which recently battled a COVID-19 outbreak, used federal guidelines to prioritize people with co-morbidities and other heightened risk factors, said Superintendent Bobby Russell.

No fixed dates for future shipments of doses were set, he said, but the facility is ready to keep moving forward as more supplies become available.

“It obviously begins to give us a little sense of relief,” he said of the start of the vaccination process.

The site remains on high alert for symptoms and exposures, he added. The regional jail started seeing an outbreak of the virus in October and November, with caseloads peaking at about 370 active cases.

The numbers began to shrink in the weeks afterward, and Russell said the facility passed two rounds of mass testing with no new positives.

The jail continues to see a small number of cases, currently standing at four, including cases caught during the intake screening process for new admissions.

Virus outbreaks have been reported in many of the Roanoke Valley’s jails, and in a total of 137 jails and prisons statewide.

At the Roanoke City Jail, an outbreak started about two weeks ago. A round of mass testing initiated last week found 53 cases among a total of 427 inmates and another 14 cases among 166 staffers.

In a statement last week, the city jail said it was working with the health department to make arrangements to start offering vaccinations to inmates as soon as it could.

The Roanoke County/Salem Jail — where a round of mass testing in mid-January found five cases among people in custody there — said it is slated to start offering vaccinations to inmates on Wednesday.

Staffers are working with the health department now to identify who’s eligible and to finalize protocols, said Sheriff Eric Orange.

The Franklin County Jail, where an outbreak was reported in September, said it was awaiting word from the health department on its vaccination timeline.

The largest jail in the New River Valley, which saw outbreaks in November and January, said it had no immediate timetable for beginning inmate vaccinations. The New River Valley Regional Jail reported it saw about 80 cases of the virus shortly before Thanksgiving. That was followed by 20 cases discovered shortly after New Year’s Day.

As of Monday, the facility’s active case count stood at 12, said Superintendent Gregory Winston. No cases led to serious illness.

Vaccine supplies are being allocated as they become available, with doses sent to health districts based on population. About half of all Virginians are currently eligible for vaccination, including law enforcement, teachers, people age 75 or older, grocery store workers, manufacturing workers and people with underlying health conditions.

Correctional officers also now qualify and have begun the vaccination process. Western Virginia Regional Jail reported that its officers received their first dose in January and are slated to get their second dose this month.

New River Valley Regional Jail officers are scheduled to start receiving vaccinations this week.

Health officials have asked for patience as the roll-out continues.

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