Governor Charlie Baker went above and beyond US Centers for Disease Control recommendations in announcing Wednesday that all Massachusetts jail and prison inmates and staffers would be among the first to get vaccinated.
But days later, as a second spike of coronavirus cases rages inside correctional facilities, it remains unclear just how officials plan to roll out a vaccination program for an estimated 22,000 people who work or are incarcerated in jails and prisons, where testing remains an issue and cleanliness and crowding are a perpetual challenge.
“We have no details about how it’s going to happen,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of the nonprofit Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts. “The virus is still raging and people are still contracting it at very high rates.”
The Massachusetts Department of Correction and its medical vendor referred questions about the vaccine distribution plan to the state’s COVID-19 Response Command Center. The command center declined to release details, saying more information would be available once vaccine shipments reach the state this month.
The Food and Drug Administration cleared the first COVID-19 vaccine in the United States for emergency use on Friday, a two-dose vaccine developed by drug makers Pfizer and BioNTech that is expected to begin shipping immediately, after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Saturday meeting to issue the final clearance.
More than 660,000people would be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine during the first phase of distribution, according to state estimates. The CDC has indicated Massachusetts will receive about 300,000 doses manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna by the end of the month. The first Massachusetts residents are expected to start receiving inoculations this week.
Residents and workers inside nursing homes and long-term care facilities, as well as police officers, firefighters, and other emergency responders are also included in the state’s first round of vaccine recipients.
Baker’s announcement garnered praise from advocates who have been pressing officials to better protect inmates and release vulnerable prisoners amid a second spike of coronavirus cases inside correctional facilities.
On Wednesday, Dr. Paul Biddinger, who chaired the Massachusetts vaccine advisory group, said that congregate settings like prisons, jails, and homeless shelters present “a documented risk factor not just for a single individual but for large populations being exposed to COVID and becoming ill at the same time.”
“From an equity perspective where people are together and at risk in the same situation, we felt it was really important to prioritize that group,” said Biddinger, who leads the division of emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The novel coronavirus has killed 11 inmates and infected more than 3,300 prisoners, correction officers, and other workers in Massachusetts jails and prisons since April. The virus has flared in the prison system since late October, with the most recent positive cases accounting for about two-thirds of all documented cases to date. Case counts in county jails have followed the same trend.
Matos, of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said she learned Friday that an entire unit of sick and elderly inmates at MCI-Norfolk tested positive for the virus, accounting for about 10 cases. One of the inmates has been hospitalized, she said.
The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice has said people in jail or prison are four times as likely to be infected with the coronavirus as the general population and twice as likely to die from it. One public health expert called correctional facilities a “powder keg” of potential virus outbreak.
Prominent organizations including the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the American Medical Association, and national groups representing criminal defense lawyers and prosecutors have endorsed early vaccination for inmates and workers in prisons and jails.
The fast-tracking of vaccines for inmates has prompted push back and criticism in some corners.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis said at a news conference on Dec. 1 he would amend a proposal that called for prisoners to be among the first group to get vaccinated in his state.
“There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime,” said Polis, a Democrat, who was diagnosed with the virus in late November.
In Massachusetts, an association representing elected sheriffs said its members have consulted with the state Department of Public Health about distributing the vaccines in county jails.
The Globe reached out to all 14 county sheriffs in the state. Four sheriffs said they are developing distribution plans. Two others said they didn’t have specifics, but said they are ready to administer the vaccine.
Superintendent David Tuttle said the Worcester County sheriff’s office purchased a new refrigerator and freezer to store vaccine doses, though the cost of buying an ultra-cold storage unit required for keeping Pfizer’s vaccine was too high.
“We’re ready to roll it out here,” Tuttle said. “Within a day or two, we can have this done.”
Tuttle said the facility has recent experience administering vaccines for flu and hepatitis A. Since March, five inmates, 16 correctional officers, and four staff members have been infected with the coronavirus, he said.
He said he discussed the vaccine with a handful of inmates on Thursday. Generally, prisoners are wary of vaccines, Tuttle said.
“They are a harder population to convince to take a vaccine,” he said. “There’s a lot of skepticism.”
Recent polling shows that a majority of Massachusetts residents plan to get a coronavirus vaccine when it’s available, but Black and Latino residents are more hesitant because of longstanding distrust of the government on health care issues. Republicans and regular churchgoers are also among those least eager to be first in line for a vaccine, partly due to skepticism over whether the vaccine has been thoroughly tested.
The executive board for the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, which represents about 3,700 officers in state prisons, said in a statement that it is encouraging its members to get vaccinated and supports the decision to let them be among the first to get inoculated.
Vaccination plans for prisons and jails are scattershot across the country.
Other states that have announced plans to vaccinate incarcerated people early include North Carolina, Nebraska, Delaware, Connecticut, New Mexico, and Maryland, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy and research group. At least six other states plan to give first priority to prison workers, not inmates. The federal Bureau of Prisons is also setting aside its first vaccines for staff, according to the Associated Press.