Study Finds Significant Vaccine Distrust Among Incarcerated Populations


The most common reason given for refusal of a COVID-19 vaccine was distrust of the health care system, correctional or government personnel, and institutions.

Fewer than half of inmates in jails and prisons surveyed for a new study said that they would accept a COVID-19 vaccine, whereas the majority either said they wanted to wait before getting a vaccine or would refuse one, according to a press release.

The study, conducted by the CDC and researchers at the University of Washington (UW), was published on the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The investigators surveyed more than 5000 inmates, both men and women, in late 2020 from 3 prisons and 13 jails in Washington, California, Florida, and Texas.

“This is a population already at risk for COVID-19, and outbreaks among incarcerated people can worsen inequities in COVID-19 outcomes as well as contribute to spread in the surrounding community,” said lead author Marc Stern, MD, MPH, affiliate assistant professor of health services in the UW School of Public Health, in the press release. “So culturally and health-literacy informed interventions are needed to help them feel more confident about getting vaccinated.”

Only 45% said they were willing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, more than 45% said they would refuse, and nearly 10% said they might or were not sure whether they would receive it.

The most common reasons the participants cited for vaccine hesitancy fell into the categories of waiting for more information or to see others take it first, and efficacy or safety concerns. The most common reason given for refusal was distrust of the health care system, correctional or government personnel, and institutions.

The survey was conducted before vaccines were available, when researchers found that Black and younger respondents were the least willing to get the vaccine. In the press release, the investigators noted that these findings are not surprising given historical mistreatment and distrust of medical and governmental institutions.

“People of color are subject to a ‘double whammy’—they are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and they are disproportionately incarcerated, living in facilities where they are more likely to become infected,” Stern said in the press release. “I hope this study sheds light on the need to find ways of assuring high levels of vaccination of incarcerated individuals, not just for their own health, but for the health of the community.”


CDC, UW study finds significant vaccine distrust within incarcerated populations, increasing risks [news release]. University of Washington; April 1, 2021. Accessed April 6, 2021.

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