Will prisoners be priority for coronavirus vaccine rollout?

With a decision on vaccine distribution plans looming, several states and medical groups have put forth drafts and recommendations for guidelines on who should be considered high-priority for the limited supply.

Health care workers are overwhelmingly assumed to be first in line, but several of the blueprints have prisoners listed in a high priority group, in some cases ahead of the elderly and other vulnerable populations.

In Colorado, for instance, under Gov. Jared Polis for an initial rollout sees critical workforce listed in a Phase 1A and Phase 1B, followed by highest risk individuals such as residents and patients in assisted living, long-term care and nursing home facilities in Phase 1C.

In Colorado's phase 2A, people who live in congregate housing, including those who are in prisons and essential workers, will receive the vaccine, ahead of those listed in Phase 2B, which includes adults 65 or older, those with obesity, heart disease, active cancer and other underlying health issues.

"Decisions about how to prioritize a limited supply of COVID-19 vaccine are complex," Dr. Lisa Lee, public health expert and associated vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Tech, told Fox News via email. "Prioritizing who gets the vaccine first is not about whether one group is more deserving than another; it is about ensuring that we have weighed all of the conflicting ethical priorities in a fair and just way. Ideally, everyone could get the vaccine on day 1, but since this is not possible, we have to make thoughtful and transparent decisions based on conflicting priorities." 

But placing people convicted of crimes ahead of the elderly doesn't sit well with everyone. 

“In the current plan, Polis elevates imprisoned pedophiles and career criminals above grandparents and adults with lung and heart disease,” George Brauchler, “Two weeks ago, Polis went hyperbolically metaphoric in likening those who dared to have an extended family Thanksgiving during the COVID as ‘bringing a loaded pistol to Grandma’s head.’ Ironically Polis would give the life-saving vaccine to a person who puts a loaded gun to grandma’s head before he would give it to grandma."

Colorado’s draft plan isn’t the only one pushing for prisons to be included in the initial vaccine rollout. American Medical Association recently called for stronger mitigation measures at the nation’s correctional and immigrant detention facilities and went as far as to recommend that incarcerated people, detained immigrants and corrections workers, should be included in the initial phases of coronavirus vaccine distribution.

Lee said that the recommendation is based on what makes ethical sense, as an older or sick prisoner would be more at risk of severe illness from coronavirus rather than a healthy older adult living independently. 

"The data on COVID-19 show us that congregate settings like prisons and long term care facilities are places through which the virus spread quickly," she said. "While otherwise healthy people in crowded settings might have a mild case, anyone with an underlying condition is at higher risk for severe illness and death." 

An earlier meeting of the CDC advisory panel grouped corrections officers with other essential workers such as teachers, police, firefighters, utility workers, those in food and agriculture and transportation workers, who would be given the vaccine in Phase 1B, after health care professionals and long-term care facility residents who were placed in Phase 1A. However, prisoners and incarcerated individuals were left out of the 1B grouping.

Internal Bureau of Prisons documents said the initial allotments of the vaccine “will be reserved for staff,” which prompted criticism, according to The Associated Press.

“We aren’t saying that prisoners should be treated any better than anybody else, but they shouldn’t be treated any worse than anybody else who is forced to live in a congregate setting,” Dr. Eric Toner, co-author of a report on vaccine allocation published by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security,

Lee added that in making a decision regarding distribution, the CDC must take into account logistical and ethical considerations. 

"From the ethical perspective, we think about several priorities, some of which conflict," she said. "Do we prioritize people most at risk of severe disease and death, such as the elderly and people with underlying conditions? Or should we give it first to people who have the most contact with others and could spread COVID-19 such as teachers, transit and grocery workers, or people who live in close quarters with others? Or should we make sure that workers in the health system get the vaccine first so we can ensure that they keep providing care to others?  Public health officials want to be sure that we maximize benefits across the population while keeping in mind that we must be fair and ensure that the most vulnerable are taken care of."

As of Monday, was reporting 4,721 out of 124,869 federal inmates had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. An additional 1,414 staff out of 36,000 had also tested positive. Since the start of the pandemic, 20,137 inmates and 1,871 staff have recovered, according to the data. There have been 145 deaths among inmates, and two among staff.


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