EDITORIAL: Vaccinating eligible prisoners is right call for public health, humanity

The Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, June 9, 2010. Obama, who during his campaign promised to shut down the U.S. military detention center in Cuba, but has failed to do so, will make a statement on Feb. 23, 2016, about the prison, the White House said, a...
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The Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, June 9, 2010. Obama, who during his campaign promised to shut down the U.S. military detention center in Cuba, but has failed to do so, will make a statement on Feb. 23, 2016, about the prison, the White House said, a...

Seems pretty cut and dried.

If you didn’t commit a crime, you should get the coronavirus vaccine before someone who did.

But there are other factors to consider, both in terms of public health and basic humanity, that cloud the covid picture when it comes to who gets priority for vaccinations.

The highest priority recipients for vaccines are obvious — healthcare workers and those in long-term-care facilities.

After that, one could make arguments for recipients based on their age, medical condition, risk of exposure, importance of their jobs and work environment.

From a public health perspective, add to that list people living and working in places where the disease is most likely to spread rapidly among vulnerable populations — so-called “congregate settings.”

That includes places like homeless shelters, nursing homes and, yes, prisons.

With people living in close proximity to one another with little access to testing and little adherence to safety protocols like mask wearing and social distancing, prisons are hot-beds for the spread of the disease, both inside and outside the walls.

As of Friday, more than 4,400 prison staff had been infected with covid, resulting in seven deaths. More than 5,200 inmates had been infected, with 31 deaths, and nearly 250 parolees, with six deaths.

Those numbers demonstrate the dangers of ignoring or downplaying prisons when it comes to the covid response.

If stopping the rapid spread of the disease is a priority, then allocating vaccines to prison staff and inmates makes as much medical sense as prioritizing specific categories of individuals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends prison staff and inmates be vaccinated. Many states and the federal prison system are following those guidelines, at least to some degree.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday acted both to stop the spread of covid in congregate settings and to protect those most vulnerable.

Starting Feb. 15, those at particular health risk from covid — such as those with cancer, diabetes, heart disease and who are pregnant — will be eligible.

And facing a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of jail inmates, Cuomo announced that inmates over the age of 65 and those deemed “medically frail” also would be eligible. That’s pretty much  in line with eligibility for the general population.

About 1,100 inmates are over age 65. No word on how many would qualify under the other criteria. New York has distributed about 2.2 million doses overall so far.

Basing vaccinations solely on whether someone is more deserving than another could lead to other complications that have nothing to do with stopping the spread of the disease, including racial,  social and income discrimination.

Not everyone will agree with the governor’s decision. We understand that.

But from a public health perspective and a human one, it was the right call.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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