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JANESVILLE

The Rock County Jail will offer single-dose coronavirus vaccines to inmates Saturday thanks largely to HealthNet of Rock County, which a jail official said Monday has “come through for us big time.”

“They got the vaccine for us,” jail Capt. Kim Litsheim said of the nonprofit health care provider. “They have really saved the day here for us because this is something we have wanted for quite some time, and it was tough.”

Ian Hedges, CEO of HealthNet, said Monday that it is “critically important for the county’s most vulnerable to COVID-19” get vaccinated.

He pointed out that many inmates eventually will leave the jail and return to the community, where they might face other barriers to getting the vaccine.

“So why not get them in a place in which we know that they’re at risk and we can locate them,” he said. “The sooner we vaccinate everybody, everyone wins.”

Jails and prisons have been among the most vulnerable places to COVID-19. Rock County’s jail saw an outbreak spread through the facility in December and into January, infecting more than half of the inmates there.

When asked about finally having a date for inmates to receive shots, Litsheim said, “Oh, it’s a relief.”

The jail will not require inmates to get vaccinated. In a recent survey, 91 of 237 inmates said they would be interested in getting the vaccine, Litsheim said.

Although they are not necessarily the same inmates who are in or will be in the jail Saturday, Litsheim said that number helped guide officials in getting 150 Johnson & Johnson doses.

A single-dose shot, as opposed to the two-dose options of Pfizer and Moderna, is important in this context because it could have been challenging to bring inmates back for a second dose after they’d been released from the jail.

Additionally, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine doesn’t have to be frozen like the others. Litsheim said if there are extra doses, they will not go to waste.

Hedges said HealthNet officials were able to get the necessary vaccines through the state “thanks to the advocacy” of Rep. Sue Conley, D-Janesville, and Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton.

When asked why the vaccines were obtained through the state and not the Rock County Public Health Department, county Health Officer Katrina Harwood said in an email that vaccine supply has not always been able to meet demand as new groups become eligible.

Still, she said the county is “using the limited influence that we may have to help vaccine providers get access to the type of vaccine that is most appropriate for the population they are serving.”

She said it appears that the flow of vaccine supply is increasing, “So we are hopeful that there will not be more delays such as the delay in getting vaccine to people who are currently residing in the jail.”

“We are grateful for vaccine providers across Rock County stepping up to ensure that people who are eligible for a vaccine receive one,” she said. “We know that the vaccine rollout process has not been as smooth as we all would have hoped for.”

The state’s health department made inmates eligible for the vaccine March 1 as the last group under the umbrella of congregate living facilities.

Monday marked the first day all Wisconsin residents age 16 and older were eligible for the vaccine.

When asked why it took until April 10 to vaccinate inmates, Litsheim stressed that she has been trying to get the jail population vaccinated as soon as it was possible.

“We have been trying. We have been in communication with the health department,” she said. “I’m not really sure. I’m not sure what the holdup was. We’ve been trying. We’ve been pushing to get that in here.”

Update: This story was updated at 6:57 p.m. Monday to include comment from the county’s health department.

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