Home U.S Infectious disease expert, former attorney general: Prioritize COVID vaccines for inmates

Infectious disease expert, former attorney general: Prioritize COVID vaccines for inmates

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Dr. Tom Inglesby and Alberto Gonzales

Last month, a federal judge in Oregon ordered the state to immediately offer the COVID-19 vaccine to people in prison — the first ruling of its kind in the nation. Prioritizing the inoculation of people behind bars has stirred political backlash in some corners of our country. But it’s a public health measure that makes good sense.

Few places are more hospitable to the coronavirus than prisons and jails. Their cramped and crowded spaces, poor ventilation, lack of room for physical distancing and high rates of chronic disease converge to make viral transmission more possible and, in some cases, more hazardous than in other environments.

Given such conditions, correctional facilities are incubators for superspreader events, as national numbers vividly show. The COVID-19 death rate in prison has been shown to be twice that of the general population, after adjusting for the sex, age and race/ethnicity of those behind bars. In five states, incarcerated people have been dying of the disease at more than seven times the rate of those outside prison walls.

Guards walk a corridor in the death row adjustment center at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California.

As members of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, we have become well versed in these and other grim statistics, and we know that many of the largest reported clusters have occurred behind bars. Along with our fellow commissioners, we spent much of 2020 investigating the impacts of the coronavirus on our justice system and producing two sets of recommendations on how to curb its spread.

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