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Covid Outbreaks Devastated Prisons, but State Inmates’ Access to the Vaccine Varies Widely

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“Based on the best data that we have, it is inadequate to only prioritize certain segments of the prison or jail population,” said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “The most effective strategy would be to prioritize all people, because of the risk of exposure in the setting.”

Beyond state prisons, officials have taken a range of approaches when it comes to vaccines for incarcerated people. This month, the federal prison system said it had fully inoculated more than 13,000 federal inmates among its approximately 151,000 prisoners. Local jails in Illinois and Massachusetts, among other states, are giving inmates shots, while many have yet to start vaccines for inmates. Corrections workers have been eligible in many states, along with police officers and firefighters.

In some places, the prospect that state prison inmates would get preference for vaccines has been met with political fury.

In Colorado, state prisoners were initially granted priority before some other vulnerable groups. The plan, devised by a panel of health experts, was discarded by Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, amid complaints from critics.

“There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime,” Mr. Polis said late last year.

Colorado’s current vaccination plan no longer specifically mentions incarcerated people, but as of last week, about 1,400 inmates had received at least the first dose of the vaccine. The state began vaccinating state prison inmates based on their eligibility in the state if they were not incarcerated, a spokeswoman for the state’s corrections department said. And after health officials discovered that two staff members and an inmate at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex were infected with a worrisome variant — the first known detection in a U.S. correctional facility — the state authorized all inmates at that facility to be permitted to get shots.

In Oregon, after officials vaccinated more than 1,000 of the state’s 12,100 prison inmates in January, inoculations abruptly stopped after what the state’s corrections department said was a misunderstanding about which inmates were eligible. Public criticism had been mounting about prisoners being given precedence over older people, though the state was ultimately ordered by a federal judge to inoculate every prisoner.

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