A Contagious COVID Variant Detected At The Buena Vista Prison Means Inmates Will Get Vaccinated Early

March 8, 2021
Mass Vaccination SiteMass Vaccination SiteAndy Cross/The Denver Post, Pool
COVID-19 vaccines await injection at the UCHealth COVID-19 mass vaccination clinic in the Coors Field parking lot Jan. 30, 2021.

Chaffee County health officials will start vaccinating all prisoners at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility after the South African variant was detected in a handful of COVID-19 cases inside the prison.

“CDPHE is bringing its own supply of vaccines, and we are helping to staff the clinics,” said Chaffee County public health director Andrea Carlstrom. 

This is a departure from Gov. Jared Polis’ initial vaccine plan to not prioritize prisoners in vaccine distribution. Despite a lawsuit and pressure from advocacy groups nationwide, Polis has maintained that prisoners should be treated like everyone else in Colorado and become eligible according to their age and medical conditions.

But the new South African variant, detected in two correctional staffers and one inmate during a random sampling at the prison in Buena Vista, sparked county health officials there to seek exemption from the state’s vaccine order.

The South African strain appears to be more contagious and some vaccines may be less effective against it. It does not appear to cause more severe infections.

State officials said Monday that counties have had the “flexibility” to vary the vaccine schedule based on detection of variants since late January. No other counties have taken advantage of that power so far.

Chaffee County will get 1,000 additional vaccines from the state to accommodate the roughly 1,100 inmates.

The Department of Corrections didn’t respond to questions about the number of inmates who have already been vaccinated, or how many correctional officers in Buena Vista have gotten the vaccine. 

Statewide, only about 42 percent of its staff have accepted the vaccine, according to the Department of Corrections.

Chaffee County health officials were at the Buena Vista prison all day Monday to perform COVID-19 tests and to host a vaccine clinic for staff and inmates at the facility.

Later in the week, they’ll offer vaccines to officers’ family members.