Should prisoners and other detainees, who have a disproportionate number of health problems, be given priority access to one of the new COVID-19 vaccines? With distribution expected as early as this month, public health officials are developing guidelines for the equitable allocation of limited vaccine supplies. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will meet on Tuesday to make initial determinations about who gets the first shots, the New York Times reports. There is consensus that health care workers who treat COVID-19 patients should be first in line. Inmates are not ranked in the top tiers of the federal criteria, even though some of the largest outbreaks have occurred in prisons.
The CDC advisory committee has prioritized those who work in jails and prisons for the first phase of immunizations. The federal prison system will set aside its initial allotment for such employees. Several groups, including the American Medical Association, are calling for vaccines to be given to inmates and employees at prisons, jails and detention centers, citing the unique risks to people in confinement — and the potential for outbreaks to spread from correctional centers. “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,” said Dr. Eric Toner, co-author of a vaccine allocation report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. One approach would be to prioritize vaccination only for prisoners and detainees whose medical conditions or advanced age put them at great risk. “This isn’t a criminal justice recommendation,” said Khalil Cumberbatch of the Council on Criminal Justice. “It’s a public health recommendation. The virus is not in a vacuum if it’s in a state prison.”