According to federal health officials, the recent flu season is proving to be the worst since 2009’s devastating H1N1 swine flu pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)estimate the current flu season, with its dominant H3N2 strain, will be at least as bad as what they term the “moderately severe” 2014-15 flu season, when 34 million people in this country were sickened, over 700,000 were hospitalized, and about 56,000 died from effects of the flu.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), since at least November 2013, has issued clinical practice guidelinesfor federal prisons on how to prevent and deal with flu seasons. The BOP guidelines call vaccination “the most critical measure” for preventing seasonal flu, noting CDC’s recommendation everyone over the age of six months get vaccinated against flu. The guidelines also call for federal prisons to offer flu vaccination to all inmates and staff, and ensure all inmates are informed, through the facility’s handbook, flyers and electronic announcements, that flu shots are available and when they can be obtained.
Those guidelines only cover federal prisons, however, so state and local prisons and jails must adopt and carry out their own policies. The survivors of a female inmate at Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville, Oregon are going to court, claiming 53-year-old Tina Ferri died there in January because in her first few months at the prison, she did not receive a flu vaccination, and after contracting influenza, did not get timely medical treatment. Her family claims Ferri, one of 44 inmates at the facility sickened by flu, had severe but untreated flu (reportedly coughing up blood), which led to pneumonia in both lungs, from which a staph infection resulted, ultimately causing multiple organ failure.
Oregon’s main health agency echoes CDC’s advice that everyone older than six months should get vaccinated for influenza. The Oregon Department of Corrections(ODOC), however, despite claiming it recommends all inmates receive flu vaccinations, could not document how it provides that advice; one agency spokesperson said there was no written policy on the issue. No announcement of the availability or advisability of flu shots was published in the facility’s monthly newsletter, and other inmates and ODOC records say any notification was limited to relatively few inmates with conditions (such as advanced age or other medical conditions), making them especially vulnerable to a flu infection.
Purchasing records also show that state’s lackadaisical approach to giving flu shots. ODOC gave conflicting figures on how many flu shots it ordered, at about $7 apiece, for its Coffee Creek prison (saying at one time 519 and at another 700). It also claimed not to be able easily to retrieve records of how many flu shots were actually delivered there, estimating the total at 300 – or about 18 per cent of 1,645 inmates. For its systemwide inmate population of about 14,550, ODOC purchased enough flu vaccine for just 4,650 inmates, estimating it administered all but about 100 units, meaning it vaccinated less than a third of inmates. Public health experts call both rates too low to be effective prevention efforts, especially for an easily spread virus in confined areas.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.