The arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine has brought hope to many Coloradans, especially those who have loved ones incarcerated in the state’s correctional facilities.
A total of 6,736 prison inmates and 1,155 staff members have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic and 17 people have died, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections COVID-19 dashboard. The CDOC’s pandemic strategy has centered on limiting inmates’ movement within the facilities, providing masks, and conducting targeted testing of inmates who exhibit symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive.
Though many inmates might qualify as high risk for their age or because of health concerns, little information has been released about how incarcerated people will gain access to the vaccine.
“Social distancing is impossible, to begin with, and whatever they are doing now is obviously not working,” said Veronica Carpio, a 42-year-old Boulder resident who has an extended family member incarcerated at the Bent County Correctional Facility, where over 40% of the inmate population has tested positive for the coronavirus. “Our governor has intentionally turned a blind eye by removing them from the vaccination plan when they are clearly some of the most vulnerable people in the state.”
Communities of color overrepresented in the prison population
The first draft of Colorado’s vaccine distribution plan placed inmates near the top of the priority list. But the latest version scrubs all mention of incarcerated people. The change came after Gov. Jared Polis said during a media briefing that prisoners would not get the vaccine before “free people.” His response got swift public push back and caught the attention of national media outlets.
In the weeks that followed, Polis backtracked from his earlier statement, saying that everyone in Colorado will be treated fairly under the new plan. “Whether you’re in prison or not, if you’re 67 years old or at risk, wherever you are, you’ll have access to the vaccine,” he said.
But criminal justice advocates have pushed for prison inmates to be in a higher priority category for the vaccine because they face a greater risk of catching the virus in the overcrowded and poorly ventilated facilities. Nationwide, the mortality rate for COVID-19 among prisoners is 45% higher than the overall rate, according to the Associated Press.
“Communities of color, and Black people specifically, are overrepresented in the prison population and over-represented in COVID deaths,” state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and chair of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado, said in a written statement on Friday. “An equitable vaccination dissemination plan must prioritize and value the life of the incarcerated.”
Questions remain about how at-risk inmates will access the COVID-19 vaccine
Currently, correctional officers and prison health care workers fall in the second half of the first phase of the vaccine distribution plan, alongside first responders and health care workers with less direct contact with COVID-19 patients.
Inmates who are either older than 65, have significant health complications or work in high density environments could receive the vaccine as early as spring 2021 under Phase 2 of the state’s distribution plan. Other people in this category include grocery store workers, school staff and other health care workers not included in the first phase.
Though many inmates might qualify as high risk for their age or because of health concerns, Colorado officials have released little information on how eligible inmates will be evaluated for and access the vaccine.
“We are waiting for updated guidance from the federal government and from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on prioritization for that phase,” said Rachel Herlihy, Colorado’s state epidemiologist, during a media briefing on Friday. “At this point, we are primarily focused on this first phase.”
A spokesperson for CDPHE said in an email on Monday that the department is working with the Colorado Department of Corrections to determine how many inmates fall into the high-risk category and would therefore have access to the vaccine in Phase 2. According to CDOC’s website, approximately 1,237 people, or 7% of the state’s prison population, incarcerated are over the age of 60.
For individuals who have chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, chronic lung disease, heart disease, chronic kidney disease, cancer or are immunocompromised, CDPHE officials said they plan on developing a standard screening tool to assess eligibility.
“CDOC has already begun the process of identifying those inmates who may meet the high risk classifications,” Annie Skinner, a spokesperson for the CDOC, said in an email. She did not answer a follow-up question about what factors they are taking into account when classifying inmates as high risk.
Department of Corrections yet to fill independent expert position
CDOC is required to hire an independent expert to provide guidance on how to determine who is medically vulnerable to COVID-19 and what the appropriate treatment should be for inmates who test positive for the virus. The requirement is part of a settlement reached on Nov. 13 with the ACLU of Colorado. According to the settlement, the expert was supposed to be hired by Dec. 11. On Friday, Skinner said that the ACLU and DOC are working cooperatively to select a neutral candidate.
The CDPHE spokesperson said that they anticipate partnering directly with correctional facilities and their clinical staff for vaccine administration. They also plan to deploy vaccination teams similar to their existing Rapid Response Teams, which have helped a select number of facilities conduct mass testing during active outbreaks.
Some inmates employed through Colorado Correctional Industries — a for-profit division of the CDOC — could receive a vaccine in Phase 2 if they work in a high density setting.
“Not all manufacturing settings are considered high density settings, but we are evaluating the various scenarios,” the CDPHE spokesperson said in an email.
Last year, over 1,600 inmates were employed through CCI, according to its 2019 annual report. Nine correctional facilities list manufacturing as an available work program. Inmates typically make less than 50 cents per hour, according to an article in CBS4 Denver.
Phase 1A – Winter: Highest-risk health care workers and individuals Phase 1B – Winter: Moderate-risk health care workers and responders Phase 2 – Spring: Higher-risk individuals and essential workers Phase 3 – Summer: General public
CDPHE’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan
Phase 1A – Winter: Highest-risk health care workers and individuals
Phase 1B – Winter: Moderate-risk health care workers and responders
Phase 2 – Spring: Higher-risk individuals and essential workers
Phase 3 – Summer: General public