Laura Martin: Vaccinate Vermont prisoners now

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Laura Martin, of Bennington, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Williams College.

Covid-19 imperils everybody, but not equally. According to the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, people in jail or prison are four times as likely to be infected with the coronavirus as the general population and twice as likely to die from it. A person incarcerated in Vermont is 9.9 times more likely to contract coronavirus than other Vermonters, the Marshall Project reports.    

And yet Vermont has not announced a plan to vaccinate prisoners or correctional staff. It should.

Vermont is currently in Phase 1a of its Covid-19 vaccination plan. In this phase, the state is vaccinating health care workers likely to be exposed to Covid-19 patients and long-term care facility residents and staff who have patient contact. On Jan. 25, vaccine eligibility will be extended to Vermont residents 75 and older.

But back in October the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that incarcerated people should receive the vaccine early; after front-line health workers (Stage 1a), their recommended Stage 1b includes older adults living in congregate settings (including nursing homes, long-term care facilities, homeless shelters, group homes, prisons and jails). Other professional groups, including the American Medical Association, concur. Inmates and employees at prisons, jails, and detention centers face unique risks – and outbreaks in such facilities would strain local hospitals

Vermont’s incarcerated population currently includes 1,099 people in-state and 184 out-of-state. Last Wednesday the Bennington Banner reported that since March 2020, 41 Department of Corrections staff members and 244 incarcerated people have tested positive for Covid-19. In August, 80% of the Vermont inmates held in a private prison in Tallahatchie, Mississippi, tested positive for Covid-19. These numbers are part of a national story. The New York Times reports that in American jails and prisons, more than 510,000 people have been infected and at least 2,200 inmates and correctional officers have died. In just one outbreak at the San Quentin State Prison in California, more than 2,200 inmates were sickened and 28 people died.

Incarcerated people live and work in crowded conditions, sharing bathrooms and dining facilities. They have high rates of asthma, diabetes, and heart disease – all comorbidities that increase Covid-19 mortality risk. Incarcerated people also do not have the freedom to avoid exposure; they have little or no choice over whether they can socially distance or don protective gear; and a disproportionate number of those incarcerated are Black and Hispanic, members of minority communities hit hard by the pandemic.

According to the Covid Prison Project, so far, 14 states have included incarcerated populations as part of their Phase 1 vaccine distribution, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Vermont is not one of them. Twenty states include incarcerated populations as part of their Phase 2 vaccine distribution, including our other neighbors, New Hampshire and New York. Unfortunately, like Texas, Alabama, South Dakota, and 13 other states, Vermont does not have a plan for its incarcerated people.

Why didn’t Vermont join Massachusetts, which included its nearly 13,000 incarcerated people in the first phase of its Covid-19 vaccination? Perhaps because it does not seem politically advantageous. Perhaps Gov. Phil Scott shares the view of Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado, who stated in December: “There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime.”

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Vermont has the obligation to do what is ethical, which means vaccinating people at high-risk, in high-exposure settings, as soon as possible. We are a small state and can be nimble. Decisions about who will get vaccinated next are being made now by state leadership, the Department of Health, and Vermont’s Covid-19 Vaccine Implementation Advisory Committee. Incarcerated people must rely on the state to meet their medical needs. Indifference is indefensible.


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