The United States experienced a particularly bad flu season in 2017-2018. Virulent strains of influenza killed many people across the nation. Though not nearly as deadly as the 1918 killer flu pandemic, it leads to a comparison with the swine flu epidemic of 2009.
For years, the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding flu vaccinations was that the elderly and anyone suffering from chronic conditions be inoculated. These two groups were viewed as more susceptible.
However, in 2010, the Advisory committee on Immunization Practices at the CDC changed their guidelines. Following that change, they now recommend providing annual flu vaccinations for everyone over the age of six months.
These changes were a direct result of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic that affected many people between the ages of 19 and 49 almost ten years ago.
Because of overcrowded conditions, a population consisting of inmates mostly in the 19-49 age range, and the lack of good medical care, the nation’s prisons are a fertile ground for a potential flu outbreak. Although the CDC guidelines were changed in 2010, the vast majority of state Departments of Corrections and local jails have ignored the advisory and have not implemented flu vaccinations for the general prison population.
Prison administrators would be well advised to update their policies and procedures to meet the new standard of care. It is much more cost effective to administer the flu vaccine to prisoners, when compared to the cost of emergency room visits and stays in the intensive care unit. Overtime staff, prescriptions, and other medications must also be paid for. According to experts, to prevent a prison flu outbreak, vaccinations must be provided for 70 to 80 percent of the population. This must include administrative staff as well as guards.
The 2017-2018 flu season saw many fatalities from influenza or complications of the flu. This included the death of a woman in Oregon at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, where only 18 percent of the prison’s population received flu vaccinations. Further, 43 prisoners at Coffee Creek contracted the flu. Afterwards, some alleged that they were never properly notified that the vaccine was available to them.
In Texas at the Montgomery County Jail, vaccines are offered, but not mandatory. Two prisoners there died during the 2017-2018 flu season. In Kentucky, at the Henderson County Detention Center, a prisoner who fell ill with the flu infected 14 other people. The prisoner had to be transferred from the state prison to the jail, in the process exposing guards, staff, and the other prisoners.
As yet, the prison population has avoided a total epidemic of influenza, but administrators should be aware that failure to follow CDC guidelines, which were set forth eight years ago, puts not only their detainees, but also administrators, guards, visitors and the surrounding community at risk.