MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — After one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in a U.S. prison, there’s growing concern many Minnesota corrections officers won’t be vaccinated.

A recent statewide survey found that only half of them want the shot and according to prison officials there are fears what that resistance could mean for the future.

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Department of Corrections Commissioner, Paul Schnell admits it has been a tough year.

“ It’s been a very difficult time for us as an agency. A lot, a lot of lessons,” Schnell said.

At one point in the pandemic, more than 80% of the incarcerated population at Stillwater had tested positive for COVID-19 and nearly 70% at Faribault.

Just this week, another inmate died at that facility. Bringing the inmate death toll to 12.

“Sometime overnight he died in his sleep but we know he was COVID positive,” said Schnell.

WCCO obtained the results of an air quality report in December showing dust build-up on air ducts and water leaks at Stillwater.

All but one surface swabbed received a fail or caution rating and it’s believed infection rates in prisons are three times as high as in the general public.

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Still, Commissioner Paul Schnell says a large number have yet to respond.

“We’re certainly concerned.  We really want people to take the vaccine,” Schnell said.

While full-scale vaccinations to all staff have yet to be offered, Schnell says just like in the community there is some distrust and worry about possible long-term vaccine impacts.

The DOC launched the Whose With Me campaign with the hope that posters throughout the facilities would build support.

It is not a condition of employment to be vaccinated so it is optional, but Commissioner Schnell said they may have to implement different PPE requirements for those who are not vaccinated or have them work in different areas.

The union representing Minnesota corrections officers issued a statement to WCCO on the matter.

AFSCME Council 5 Executive Director Julie Bleyhl said this:

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“Correctional officers, front line workers, and all public employees bravely face the challenges of COVID-19 every day while serving the public and do so with great risk. As a union, we will continue to work with our members and health officials to provide workers accurate and factual information with regard to the vaccine and encourage all workers to receive their vaccine when offered one. Public employees always lead by example and serve to protect our communities. We will continue to partner and support events to safely schedule workers to receive their vaccine, like the event we are promoting on Monday at the St. Cloud Correctional Facility and other events across the state. The scientific data and efficacy of the vaccines warrant all of us getting the vaccine whether we have been exposed to COVID-19 and recovered or not to protect ourselves, co-workers, families and communities.”

Liz Collin