With the first COVID vaccines being distributed in the U.S. this week, we wanted to update you on plans to offer vaccinations to the people who live and work in Pennsylvania county and state prisons.
But before we do that, we need to take a moment to acknowledge the deaths of 10 people in custody this past week. We mourn the losses of those individuals who spent their last days confined at SCI Somerset, SCI Waymart, and other state prisons.
To date a total of 55 people confined in state and county jails, as well as 5 people who worked in them, have died in Pennsylvania.
Giving the COVID vaccine to people who live and work in prisons can prevent countless more deaths.
Prisons should be prioritized
In multiple studies, people in prisons have been found to catch the coronavirus four times as often as the general population, and to die from it at least twice as often. The rampant surge we’ve seen in Pennsylvania prisons starting in the fall illustrates how rapidly the virus spreads on the inside. Nearly 90 percent of the 6,000 people in custody in state prisons who have caught COVID-19 tested positive in just the last two months. Higher rates of chronic medical conditions among incarcerated people also increase their risk of severe disease once they catch it.
Corrections staff should also be prioritized for immunization given their heightened risk for exposure and their role as vectors cycling the virus between prisons and the surrounding community. When outbreaks strike, prisons become incubators that fuel broader spread in the community. Putting them out is an urgent public health concern.
How vaccination plans are treating people who live and work in prisons
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has outlined a three-phase plan for vaccine distribution in the United States, along with guidelines for who to prioritize when supplies are limited. It is up to states to determine how to implement the guidelines, though, giving them discretion over the precise order of priority for high-risk groups.
In the CDC’s plan, incarcerated people and people who work in prisons are identified as “critical populations” that should be given priority when vaccines still aren’t plentiful enough to meet demand. But it doesn’t specify in which phase they should be vaccinated, leaving it open to interpretation by the states. In its review of individual state plans, the Prison Policy Initiative found that only a handful of states explicitly placed people in custody in Phase 1 of vaccinations. About half of the states placed corrections staff in the first phase, and some plans, such as Missouri’s, clearly prioritized them over people in custody. Missouri relegated incarcerated people to Phase 3, when everyone in the general population can get vaccinated.
What we know about Pennsylvania’s plan so far
Fortunately, Pennsylvania is giving high priority to people who live and work in prisons. Both groups are slated for vaccinations in “Phase 1B” of the state’s plan, after health care workers and nursing home residents. But it’s hard to say exactly when vaccinations in prisons will begin. Pennsylvania’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, said on Monday that it could take “weeks” for the state to get enough doses to begin Phase 1B. It will also take time to vaccinate the broad range of groups in the phase, which includes first responders, teachers, and every other category of essential worker. Pennsylvania hasn’t estimated when the next phases will begin, but according to national projections, it will take until late spring or early summer to finish inoculating priority populations.
In addition, administering vaccines to everyone in the state’s 23 prisons and 62 county jails will no doubt be a logistical challenge. The Department of Corrections says it’s still working through the details of how it will work in state prisons. County jails operate independently, raising the question of how well each one is coordinating with the state. Jails in Pennsylvania have been inconsistent about reporting COVID infections and following CDC recommendations, such as wearing masks. The Prison Policy Initiative highlighted the risk that jails could be neglected as states execute their plans, noting “a history of locally-operated jails falling through the cracks in state policy.”
Philadelphia, at least, which has its own distribution plan separate from the state’s, has committed to vaccinating people in jail during Phase 1, even placing them ahead of corrections staff. Jails in every other county should prepare to vaccinate people in custody and staff in accordance with the state’s priorities.
We call on all county and state officials to administer COVID-19 vaccinations to all people in custody and staff as soon as they become available. In addition, we renew our calls to: