The state next week plans to begin widespread distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine to an estimated 22,000 prisoners and correctional workers who were given priority for early vaccination because they are deemed to be at high risk of contracting the virus.
The rollout, which is expected to take about three weeks, begins about a month after county jails and the Department of Correction experienced the highest number of active COVID-19 cases among prisoners and workers since the state started documenting real-time infections in July. At Christmas, just under 700 prisoners and correctional workers were infected, a number which has since dropped to about 520 cases, according to state figures.
The virus has killed two county inmates and 19 DOC prisoners, including two men who died of COVID-19 shortly after being granted medical parole and who are not included in the state’s official tally of correctional fatalities. More than 5,500 prisoners and workers atcorrectional facilities have tested positive for the virus since April, state figures show.
“We made the decision early on that we were going to focus on what we consider to be populations that were most at risk,” Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday at a State House news conference where he also described plans to vaccinate people who work or live in shelters and other group settings. “And all the data and all the evidence makes pretty clear that congregate care settings are at-risk communities no matter how you define them.”
Marylou Sudders, who leads the state’s COVID-19 Response Command Center, said the facilities will receive doses of Moderna’s vaccine and vaccination is voluntary. The DOC will use its medical provider, Wellpath, to distribute the doses with help from two ambulance services, she said. County facilities, which are run by elected sheriffs, will use existing clinical staff to administer vaccines, according to Sudders.
Massachusetts is among 14 states to grant early vaccines to prisoners, said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, cofounder of The COVID Prison Project and an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina. Puerto Rico also gave prisoners priority for vaccination, she said.
The state went beyond federal guidelines, even though the idea of fast-tracking inmates has faced some criticism. Democratic Governor Jared Polis of Colorado said last month there was “no way” prisoners in his state would get the vaccine before law-abiding citizens.
Researchers from The COVID Prison Project have so far tracked vaccine distribution in 13 correctional systems and tallied the delivery of 27,000 doses to correctional facilities nationwide, Brinkley-Rubinstein said.
But many details about the distribution process, including how many doses have actually been administered, remains a mystery, she said.
“There’s a lot of opacity around how it’s going,” Brinkley-Rubinstein said.
On Wednesday, the DOC said it would offer the vaccine to all inmates, prioritizing the most vulnerable populations based on public health recommendations and guidelines. The agency didn’t provide further details.
Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said she participated in a video about the COVID-19 vaccine that the state plans to show inside correctional facilities. She said the vaccine’s arrival will not slow efforts to press for more inmates to be set free.
“We don’t consider this the end all, be all. We are still pushing for releases,” Matos said.
The recently enacted state budget instructs the DOC to release, furlough, or place prisoners in home confinement in cases where it is safe to do so to slow the spread of COVID-19. The budget also urges the agency to consider measures that would make more prisoners eligible for early release.
Separately, the DOC is developing a home confinement program and suspending operations at two facilities, meaning some inmates would be relocated. Matos questioned those plans, noting that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discourages prisoner transfers during the pandemic and that it is unclear whether the proposals would ease crowding.
In county jails in Massachusetts, at least 650 medical workers and correction officers have already received their first dose of the vaccine, officials said. Several agencies said they are circulating surveys to estimate how many workers and prisoners want the vaccine.
At the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office, for example, 230 doses have been administered so far to workers, and inmates are being interviewed to gauge their interest.
As of Wednesday, about 21 percent of the prisoner population had said they would accept the vaccine, though more inmate interviews are pending, said Steve O’Neil, a spokesman for the Hampden sheriff.
“There are more looking for it every day as education continues and their comfort level increases,” O’Neil said in an e-mail.