Select Tennessee prisoners will now receive COVID-19 vaccinations, following a report on officials’ apparent hesitancy to prioritize them initially. The state progressed to Phase 1C of its vaccination plan earlier this week, which extends vaccines to those prisoners who are 65 and older or have eligible health conditions. Others now eligible to receive the vaccine are individuals 16 years old and older that have diabetes, Down syndrome, or any progressive neuromuscular diseases, or live in households with pregnant women.
The announcement to vaccinate these prisoners came shortly after it was discovered that officials determining the order of vaccine priority groups were hesitant to prioritize prisoners due to the optics of placing them ahead of other citizens. The Pandemic Vaccine Planning Stakeholder group, an advisory panel that assists in vaccine rollout decisions and communication with citizens across the state, reportedly stated during one of its meetings that prioritizing prisoners could prove a public relations “nightmare” and, possibly, a state liability. The Associated Press discovered these remarks in an open records request for the group’s meeting notes late last week.
TN Department of Corrections (TDOC) Communications Director Dorinda Carter shared that the TDOC would distribute nearly 3,000 vaccines to those classes of prisoners. Carter noted that they began vaccinating prisoners on Tuesday.
The Tennessee Department of Health (TDOH) said that all individuals who were eligible under the current phase’s criteria would receive a vaccine regardless of their situation – including prisoners.
However, Carter reportedly stated at the end of February that inmate vaccinations hadn’t begun. The day before, February 22, all individuals 65 and older were eligible to be vaccinated. In a virtual media briefing, TDOH Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey explained that this wasn’t a result of miscommunication between her department and the TDOC. She speculated that the prisoners 65 and older likely weren’t being vaccinated because they were a small subset of the prison population, and speculated further that TDOC decided to wait several weeks for phase 1c to justify the logistics behind administering vaccinations.
“There’s probably not a critical mass of incarcerated individuals [that are] 65+, certainly there are some, but from an operational standpoint, it’s a very large population that is going to take a lot of coordination to vaccinate all of them. And so, their eligible population went from something very small to very large this week. And so, now it probably makes a little more operational sense for them to do it. Specifically, when they knew a couple of weeks ago that we would be moving into [phase] 1c.”
“I don’t know that that’s any different than me saying, ‘Today, people at a large manufacturing plant are eligible for 1c,'” added Piercey. “It’s really not any change from the entire plan going on. It’s not particularly something we were going to call out because everybody regardless of their employment status, their employer, their living situation is now eligible.”
Other reports said that TDOC officials informed reporters that prisoners would be vaccinated all at once. Piercey said that wasn’t correct, that prisoners were intended to be vaccinated during this phase all along.
The vaccine allocations phases graphic on the state’s plan mentions corrections residents explicitly in phase 3 – two phases in the future.
Further information about the state’s vaccine phases are available on its COVID-19 website.
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