One Chautauqua County legislator is upset that inmates at the county jail were able to get the COVID-19 vaccine before some older eligible residents.

During the legislature’s Public Safety Committee meeting, Chairman Terry Niebel, R-Sheridan, expressed his displeasure that earlier this month about 110 inmates received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, even though there’s a waiting list of seniors at the Office of the Aging.

Sheriff James Quattrone spoke at the virtual meeting and noted that the state required the vaccine be used up within seven days and had to be used on “homebound” individuals. If the county didn’t use them up, they could have been penalized.

“They chose and decided the jail would be an appropriate place. I was supportive of having inmates vaccinated,” he said.

Quattrone noted that when there was an outbreak in December among the inmates, some of his staff had to be quarantined and were unable to work. That caused “tens of thousands of dollars” in overtime.

“Being that they’re in a congregate setting, a care setting, we felt it was an appropriate use of that vaccine,” he said.

Niebel, however, thought there’s too many seniors that are eligible for the vaccine who should have gotten it first. “We still have an awful lot of frail elderly in Chautauqua County. Of our population in county, there’s 100,000 people over the age of 18. Of those 100,000, about a quarter of them or more are people 65 or older. Of people who actually die of COVID, it’s about 94% who are over 65,” he said.

Niebel said he was not looking to place blame on either the county’s Health Department or the Sheriff’s Office. Instead, he said he wants to have a policy in place to have select county legislators help decide who gets the vaccine when it could go to the jail.

Niebel’s fellow legislators, however, felt the sheriff did what he should have.

“I don’t think the sheriff has control over who gets it. He’s doing what his job description requires him to do. I don’t think he has the authority to say ‘I don’t want the inmates to get them and we should give them to the people at Heritage Village,’” said Legislator Bob Bankowski, D-Dunkirk, using Heritage as an example.

Legislator Paul Whitford, D-Jamestown, noted there is a COVID task force and any concerns should be brought to that team, instead of to the sheriff. “You can’t dismiss the individuals that are exposed to that day in and day out and risk their health, dealing with the inmate,” he added, referring to jail employees.

Legislator Dan Pavlock, R-Sinclairville, said he doesn’t want the sheriff to decide if seniors or inmates should get the vaccine. “He is the manager of the jail. He directly oversees and supervises it, so I don’t think it’s a legitimate ask on his behalf,” he said.

Quattone noted he is a member of the county’s COVID task force. “I don’t want to speak for the whole team, but my understanding is we all agree that we wish the local health department would be able to determine where those vaccines are going. I think the public health (department) wants to make sure they use every one of the vaccines and don’t have to return any of them. That’s a big part of the decision making,” he said.

No formal resolutions were put forth following the discussion.

After the meeting, the OBSERVER reached out to Christine Schuyler, county public health director and commissioner of Social Services, about how the decision was made to vaccinate inmates.

She noted that the county is under strict guidelines as to how the vaccine could be used and how the county was under the gun to use up its allocated vaccines. “Inmates of a county jail are members of our community, albeit they are considered both homebound and homeless while in the jail setting. In fact, most aren’t considered ‘criminals’ as they have not been convicted or sentenced yet and they will return to our community. Jails and prisons are high-risk areas for the spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19, and a public health approach is best in a correctional health setting,” she said.

Schuyler also noted that vaccination of inmates protects corrections staff, saves a tremendous amount of money in overtime because of the separation of inmates that must occur with isolation and quarantine, and has a spillover protective effect on the community at large.

“Sheriff Quattrone is part of our COVID leadership team and he and his staff have been tremendous partners in our pandemic response. I continue to be very proud of the dedication and work of our staffs and applaud their continued efforts to protect the health and safety of everyone, regardless of who they are,” she said.

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