Incarcerated People and Corrections Staff Should Be Prioritized in COVID-19 Vaccination Plans



Prison Policy Initiative: Katie Rose Quandt - December 8, 2020


As the approaching rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine brings hope of an eventual end to the pandemic, it also introduces ethical dilemmas. With various groups of Americans at heightened risk of exposure, and others at increased risk of severe cases, who should be vaccinated first?


By any reasonable standard, incarcerated people should rank high on every state’s priority list. The COVID-19 case rate is four times higher in state and federal prisons than in the general population — and twice as deadly. And despite the danger of close quarters and high rates of preexisting health conditions among incarcerated people, prisons and jails have widely failed to reduce their populations enough to prevent the spread of the virus. Since March, at least 227,333 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 1,671 have died. There have also been at least 56,496 cases and 105 deaths among prison staff.


The federal Bureau of Prisons announced in November that it plans to reserve its early allotments of the vaccinations for staff, not incarcerated people. Curious whether this was indicative of broader policy decisions, we investigated how states are planning to address incarcerated populations and corrections staff in their early rounds of vaccination, which may begin as soon as mid-December. To do so, we looked through all 49 publicly available draft vaccination proposal plans, which states were required to submit this fall using guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). (A complete plan from Minnesota was not available.)


In the draft proposals, states were encouraged to create three-phased plans for vaccine distribution, structured around availability of the vaccine. (Many states further subdivided the three phases into priority tiers, such as Phase 1A and Phase 1B):


Phase 1: Potentially Limited COVID-19 Vaccine Doses Available

Phase 2: Large Number of Doses Available; Supply Likely to Meet Demand

Phase 3: Likely Sufficient Supply


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