Maine officials: People in jails and prisons will have to wait for vaccines
"Given the extreme supply of vaccine, I can't, for example, say that somebody (in prison) who is 70 and above right now can get a vaccine," a CDC official said
By Megan Gray
Portland Press Herald
PORTLAND, Maine — The state still does not have a plan to vaccinate people in jails and prisons, including those who are eligible right now based on their age.
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday that he does not know when the state will start offering shots to incarcerated people because doses are "at a premium."
"It's our intention to mirror the age categories for folks who are in carceral settings, but given the extreme supply of vaccine, I can't, for example, say that somebody (in prison) who is 70 and above right now can get a vaccine," he said in a news briefing. "There's just such little vaccine to go around."
Advocates for incarcerated people criticized that position Thursday. They have been saying for months that the 3,300 people in Maine prisons and jails should be prioritized for the vaccine because they are in congregate settings where COVID-19 can spread easily. Correctional facilities across the country have been hotspots since the early days of the pandemic, and Maine's two largest outbreaks at single sites have been at a state prison and a county jail.
Joseph Jackson, a leader in the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said he is "very disturbed" by the way the state has treated incarcerated people during the vaccine rollout.
"This is denying them access to health care services that are being provided for the same folks in their age category," Jackson said. "We cannot understand this discrimination that is really based on the fact that they are incarcerated."
Other states have not taken the same approach as Maine. The Guardian reported that about half of the states have designated incarcerated people in the first phase of vaccine distribution, and the Prison Policy Initiative found that 40 of 49 states appear to treat incarcerated people as a priority group in their vaccine plans, although some were more vague than others. Nearby Massachusetts was one of the first states to start giving shots to prisoners, and more than 4,300 had already been vaccinated last month.
Legal action has prompted at least two states to rethink their plans for vaccinating incarcerated people. In Oregon, a federal judge ordered officials to offer shots after a group of prisoners sued. In New York, officials announced they would start vaccinating inmates 65 and older last month after advocacy groups filed a similar lawsuit.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said the approach here violates the rights of incarcerated people.
"Putting people in prison and jail at the back of the line, simply because they are incarcerated, violates the state's constitutional obligation to provide adequate care to people in its custody," Meagan Sway, the organization's policy director, said in a written statement. "Additionally, it defies recommendations by public health experts to prioritize vaccinations for incarcerated people because they live in dangerous congregate settings."
"The Mills administration said science would inform Maine's vaccine delivery plan," she added. "However, in its treatment of people in prison and jails, the Mills administration is not following the science, nor is it fulfilling its constitutional obligation to people in its custody."
Maine began vaccinating corrections officers in January. Gov. Janet Mills said at the time that she felt it was "first and foremost" important to vaccinate prison and jail employees.
"It protects them and their families, and it protects the people in their care, the residents of these facilities," Mills said in a news briefing. "We think it's first and foremost important to vaccinate the staff. Inmates, residents, will come at a later time, undetermined."
Asked about inmates who are older or who have underlying medical conditions, the governor did not outline a specific plan.
"If there are two or three inmates in a particular facility who happen to be over 70, that's not going to be as feasible from a logistical point of view, but our priority are people of that age group, wherever they are," she said. "They're not excluded, they're not specifically included."
But the federal CDC recommends vaccinating corrections employees and incarcerated people at the same time "because of their shared increased risk of disease."
Last week, Mills announced that Maine will base eligibility for COVID-19 vaccination on age moving forward, although she has since prioritized school staff to follow a directive from the Biden administration. Right now, Mainers who are 60 years and older are eligible for a vaccine.
Spokeswomen for the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to questions this week about how the new criteria would be applied in prisons and jails. After Shah addressed the issue at the briefing Thursday, those officials did not answer additional questions, including why incarcerated people who are now eligible based on their age are not receiving the vaccine.
"Maine CDC is working with the Department of Corrections on a plan to vaccinate age-eligible incarcerated people," Jackie Farwell, a DHHS spokeswoman, wrote in an email. "We will release details when the plan is complete."
The Department of Corrections has more than 1,200 staff. Anna Black, a department spokeswoman, said 526 had received both first and second doses as of Thursday. Another 163 have received their first doses and are waiting for their second. Black didn't say on Thursday how many of the more 500 other employees have declined to be vaccinated, though she said some have been or will be vaccinated by their medical providers.
A daily dashboard shows that more than 1,700 adults and juveniles are in state prisons. Another 1,600 people were incarcerated in county jails at the end of January. It is not clear how many would be eligible for the vaccine right now based on their age. In January, the department said 38 people in state prisons were older than 70, and another 42 were between 65 and 69. Black did not answer a question Thursday about how many people are in each age bracket.
Jackson, from the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Network, said incarcerated people and their families are afraid about their high risk of contracting the virus, and he has been in contact with state officials about their concerns.
"It seems that fundamentally and morally the department is on board and prepared to move ahead with this, and particularly, the governor's office is the barrier to vaccinating incarcerated individuals," Jackson said.
Spokespeople for the governor's office did not respond to an email Thursday afternoon asking why incarcerated people have so far been excluded from vaccine distribution.
Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, whose department oversees the state's largest jail, said Thursday that he does not know when or how he will receive vaccines for people in his custody.
Distributing the vaccines in jails will be a logistical challenge. People come and go, sometimes for just days or weeks. Joyce suggested that the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine might be easier to administer than the two-shot options for that reason. The jail also currently has 375 people in custody. Joyce said they have been trying to make plans and even purchased a freezer to store doses if necessary.
"My biggest frustration has been the lack of communication and the lack of direction," Joyce said. "That has been the biggest part. We're siting here speculating."
Joyce said the 160 jail employees have been offered the vaccine, and those who wanted their shots have gotten at least their first doses, but he didn't know how many have rejected it. He said inmates have been struggling without visits from their loved ones for nearly a year, and he noted that many cases have ground to a halt because the courts are not hosting jury trials right now.
"The inmates are not any less important," Joyce said.
The state's largest outbreak at a single location was at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, where 160 people contracted the virus in the fall. That outbreak included nearly 40 percent of the inmates. Corrections officials have said at least three prison inmates have been hospitalized with COVID-19 complications during the pandemic, although the department has not reported any virus deaths.
The second largest outbreak was at the York County Jail, where 87 people tested positive. One man who was infected died just weeks later, and while the state did not classify his death as related to COVID-19, the Medical Examiner's Office found the virus contributed to his death. The Portland Press Herald also found that the jail flouted public health recommendations about mask wearing before the virus spread to nearly half of the inmates and correctional officers and into the community. A subsequent review by the Department of Corrections found that not all county jails had been following public health recommendations.
(c)2021 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)