Prisons Are Covid-19 Hotbeds. When Should Inmates Get the Vaccine?

“It’s a fundamental tenet of public health to try and stop epidemics at their source,” he added.

One approach, under consideration by the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, would be to prioritize vaccination only for prisoners and detainees whose medical conditions or advanced age put them at great risk should they become ill.

“This isn’t a criminal justice recommendation,” said Khalil Cumberbatch, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan group focused on criminal justice policy. “It’s a public health recommendation. The virus is not in a vacuum if it’s in a state prison.”

The United States holds some 2.3 million individuals in prisons, jails and other detention centers, incarcerating more people per capita than any other nation. That includes nearly 500,000 people who have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trials, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. (Some jails have taken steps to reduce overcrowding since the pandemic started.)

The figure also includes some 44,000 youngsters who are held in juvenile facilities and an estimated 42,000 in immigration detention centers.

People held in confinement are uniquely vulnerable to the virus. Incarcerated individuals are four times more likely to become infected than people in the general population, according to a study by the criminal justice commission. Over all, Covid-19 mortality rates among prisoners are higher than in the general population.

So far, at least 200,000 inmates have already been infected with Covid-19, and at least 1,450 inmates and correctional officers have died from the virus, according to a database maintained by The New York Times.

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Those numbers most likely underestimate the magnitude of the problem, because reporting requirements are spotty and vary from state to state, said Dr. Tom Inglesby, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and another co-author of the vaccine allocation report.

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