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COVID-19: The Politics of Prisoner Vaccination

Immunization experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put together an Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to create a set of recommended guidelines that states should consider when preparing a vaccine distribution plan. Prison guards, anyone 75 and older and certain front-line workers were placed in Phase 1B, right after health care and essential workers. It also recommended that prisoners be inoculated at the same time as guards, or, depending upon supply, directly in the next phase.

The CDC views prisoners as people in long-term facility care and therefore more susceptible to widespread outbreaks because of congregate settings. In the last year, prisons and jails were responsible for more than 40 of the 50 largest outbreaks, according to a call for urgent action in the October issue of the medical journal Lancet. It stated that prisoners already had high rates of hypertension, heart disease and other conditions that increase the possibility of infection by COVID-19. Prison populations are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, communities more at risk to the spreading the virus.

A review published by the think tank Prison Policy Initiative said that some states, such as New Jersey and Washington, have begun immunizing of prisoners. Others, like Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, place prisoners behind health-care workers and both residents and staff of long-term health-care facilities. Some states have ignored federally recommended guidelines completely, placing the elderly ahead of essential workers.

California, among the worst states hit by the pandemic, has had more than 400,000 prisoners test positive for coronavirus since it swept the nation. About 130 prisoners had died from the virus, The Washington Post reported January 2, 2021. Colorado has had 7,000 prisoners become ill with COVID-19 and 24 died. According to Denver pulmonologist Anuj Mehta, the problem is that the virus does not remain contained in prisons or jails. Close living conditions create a hotbed of infection, and guards and staff (who are probably responsible for bringing the infection into the environment) then carry it out to their communities, which are predominantly  low-income and minority.

Massachusetts places a higher priority on congregate settings and therefore on prisoners, stated Paul Biddinger, chairman of the state vaccine advisory board and medical director for emergency preparedness at Mass General Brigham.

Board member and state Senator Cindy Friedman said prisoners were in dire need of inoculation. “Congregate settings are congregate settings, and they are high density and at risk whether they’re long-term nursing facilities or prisons,” she said. She added that it showed failure in America’s criminal justice system, revealing the “extent of the breakdown and the gaps and the poor access to behavioral health care” prisoners encountered.

Prioritization has put focus on a national dilemma, who is inoculated first. Finite shares of the vaccine have forced state leaders to decide if this is a medical issue or a moral one. These clashing values are being argued in the media of a nation that imprisons more people than any other country worldwide.

Brauchler wrote the op-ed that caught fire with many of the right wing. It was repeated on pro-Trump Facebook pages, such as “ALL ABOARD THE TRUMP TRAIN,” and ultimately landed Brauchler on Fox News where he labeled Polis’ initial vaccination plan “crazy.”

Polis appeared to cave to public opinion and revised his plan, placing prisoners in no particular order. He stated on Fox News that there was no way the short supply of vaccines would “go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime. Free people must receive it before incarcerated people.”

Even Brauchler said that Polis went further than what he intended with his op-ed. He felt that prisoners should fall somewhere between the general population and the elderly. At 51, he definitely felt they should be inoculated before he was. “I have other options, and they don’t,” he stated.

Matthew Wynia, a member of Colorado’s medical advisory group that developed the state’s first plan and director of the University of Colorado Center for Bioethics and Humanities, said, “It’s a very stigmatized population, and there are people who say, ‘They’re in prison, they must have done something terrible, and they don’t deserve a place in line.’ [But this attitude] might end up prolonging the pandemic and killing more people.” 


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