LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Sluggish COVID-19 vaccination rates for Arkansas prison workers are raising concerns about the prison system's ability to ward off disease during the pandemic's next phase and against more-contagious variants, according to public health and incarceration experts.

About 42% of the more than 4,700 Arkansas Department of Corrections employees have received at least one shot, an agency spokeswoman said. The corrections department set a goal of vaccinating 80% of employees after shots were offered on Jan. 5, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Sunday.

More than 11,300 people in Arkansas' custody have contracted the virus, and at least 49 died, according to Department of Health data.

As of May 1, Arkansas' infection rate among prisoners was the third-highest among states, according to data compiled by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit criminal-justice news outlet.

State prisons continue to see new virus cases, with five sites reporting new cases since April 15.

Department of Corrections communications director Cindy Murphy didn't answer questions from the newspaper about why officials think COVID-19 vaccinations lag among workers.

In a statement, she said the agency has been affected "more than most" institutions in the state and that workers had "stepped up once again" to receive shots.

She said the vaccination rate for prison workers outpaces the rate for the state population overall and that the agency ran a "robust" vaccination campaign.

Vaccinating prison system workers is as important as providing shots for inmates, according to public health experts.

Incarcerated people are "at the mercy" of the staff's choice to be vaccinated, said John Hart, a senior research associate with the Vera Institute of Justice's Restoring Promise initiative in New York.

As of last week 7,438 prison inmates, or about 47% of the total population, had received their first vaccine dose, agency statistics released under public-records law show.'

The corrections department can't require the shots. A new state law which took effect last month prohibits state agencies from requiring their workers to be vaccinated without seeking special permission from the Legislature.

It wasn't clear if problems with vaccination reluctance among prison staff members extended to jails in the state's most populous counties. Faulkner County, which last week reported more than 90 positive cases in its jail, didn't answer a public-records request for that information. Pulaski County has vaccinated 84 of 262 jail employees -- about 32%.

On Saturday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson raised concern as active coronavirus cases in the state reached a 47-day high.

"While our new cases remain steady and hospitalizations have declined, the virus remains a threat. Keep up the good work, and get vaccinated as soon as you can," Hutchinson said in a tweet.

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