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HSE confirms prison nurses will be vaccinated as frontline healthcare workers - but timeline remains unclear

Some prison nurses were told they would not be included in the healthcare worker stage of the vaccine roll-out at all.

Stock photo.
Stock photo.
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HSE BOSS PAUL Reid has written to the Irish Prison Service (IPS) to assure the organisation that prison nurses will be vaccinated as frontline healthcare workers, TheJournal.ie understands, but when exactly this process will begin remains unknown.

It’s believed that some prison nurses were informed that they would not be included in this stage of the vaccine roll-out when other healthcare workers are being vaccinated and would have to wait until key workers were called, despite their frontline duties.

The Department of Health – which has responsibility for deciding the allocation of vaccines – confirmed that group two of the vaccine roll-out includes frontline healthcare workers (HCWs) in direct patient contact roles, but did not respond to queries on whether this includes prison nurses.

As well as providing treatment for prisoners who are Covid positive, nurses employed by the IPS carry out daily swabbing of prisoners.

This includes meeting new committals on arrival and swabbing them before they are placed into isolation, as well as regular prison-wide swabbing if there is an outbreak.

There are currently a small number of outbreaks in Irish prisons.

However, nurses and other staff have been largely successful at keeping Covid out of Irish prison, with no confirmed cases among the prison population during the first wave.

The first stage of the vaccine roll-out has been progressing rapidly among frontline healthcare workers in other settings, but it is understood that a lack of a firm timeline on when prison nurses will receive their first dose is causing concern among staff.

“We were told we weren’t included in the first roll-out plan at all,” one nurse, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

“We have been working throughout the pandemic, focusing on just getting on with it, but this makes us feel like we’re not being treated with the same respect as our colleagues in hospitals.”

Gabriel Keaveny, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said any decision to delay the vaccination the prison nurses could have “catastrophic” consequences.

“We only have 120 nurses, so if there’s an outbreak in any of the healthcare areas our resources are depleted very, very quickly,” he said.

Keaveny added that once vaccination is completed among priority groups – frontline healthcare workers and those most at risk of severe illness from Covid-19 – that prison officers should be strongly considered as one of the next groups to inoculate.

“There’s only a finite number of prison officers. There’s no private sector which we can call on [in the event of an outbreak]. When there are outbreaks in prisons, there are critical staffing shortfalls almost immediately.
“It’s also an institutional setting, so where there is an outbreak, it spreads extremely quickly.”

The Irish Times reported that the IPS had contacted health officials requesting that prisoners be vaccinated ahead of the general population, due to a high rate of underlying conditions and the potential for prisons to be “reservoirs” of disease.

Prisoners, prison nurses, and prison officers are not explicitly mentioned in Ireland’s vaccination strategy and implementation plan.

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The HSE said all priority groups will be inoculated as supplies of vaccines become available.

Paul Reid told a media briefing this week that the HSE is ‘unfortunately not able to give a level of predictability around the vaccine for each of the various cohorts of the sequencing right now’, nothing that the exact timing of deliveries is not covered by the vaccine purchase agreements in place.

“Unfortunately at this point in time we’re not able to give people predictability right now of what month, what week, what cohorts we will be doing, but we are planning on those mobilisation efforts.”

A spokesperson for the Irish Prison Service said the Department of Health is “making the overall determinations on the vaccine policy and the schedule for delivery of the vaccine”.

At the time of publication, the Department of Health had not confirmed if prison nurses would be classed under Group 2, although provided a general statement on vaccine rollout.

“The aim of the Covid-19 vaccination programme is to ensure, over time, that vaccine will become available to vaccinate all of those for whom the vaccine is indicated,” it read.

“Given that there will be initially limited vaccines available, it will take some time for all to receive those vaccines and that has necessitated an allocation strategy to ensure that those most at risk of death and serious illness receive the vaccine first.
“All of the groups will be covered as further vaccine supplies become available and the immunisation programme is rolled out nationally. The evidence will be kept under review and the allocation groups may be updated, where necessary, in light of new evidence.”

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Nicky Ryan

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