While a debate rages over the priority for scarce COVID-19 vaccines, the Department of Corrections on Jan. 16 and 17 vaccinated 1,343 "older adults" or those deemed medically vulnerable. Another 316 adults under age 60 got the vaccine because there were leftover doses.
It appears some of those vaccinations weren't supposed to happen yet. Currently in Oregon, only people who fall under the 1A category are supposed to be vaccinated, such as those in nursing homes, for example. Prison inmates do not fall in that category.
It is unclear from the information DOC provided how many, if any, of the prisoners vaccinated so far include people who fall under 1A because they work in the medical clinic or have developmental disabilities. The Oregon Health Authority directed WW to DOC for answers.
A DOC spokeswoman acknowledged the prison vaccinations went beyond the scope of people in the 1A category.
"In addition [to people in category 1A], due to some miscommunication regarding eligibility definitions and timing of certain eligibility categories, DOC also recently vaccinated 1,343 adults in custody who were older adults, or who had medical or other vulnerabilities—or both," DOC spokeswoman Jennifer Black said. "Any AIC who has received a first dose will receive a second dose."
Black said that 1,343 out of 1,558—or 86%—of prisoners who were offered the vaccine accepted it. Black said that it had an excess of vaccines because it had anticipated a 100% acceptance rate. As a result, Black said, the department offered vaccines to 316 inmates under the age of 60.
"DOC was able to complete these 1,343 vaccinations using existing vaccine supplies, and they will not delay any staff vaccinations," Black said. "We anticipate having sufficient remaining supplies for additional staff vaccinations and upcoming second doses for staff and AICs."
Oregon prisons are home to the five largest workplace outbreaks in the state, according to the Oregon Health Authority. So far, more than 3,213 prisoners and 768 corrections staff have tested positive for the virus.
In all, 36 Oregon inmates have died after testing positive for the coronavirus. Seven of the deceased, who were housed at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, died in a one-week period: between Jan. 14 and 21, according to DOC.
At Two Rivers, 134 inmates currently have COVID-19, according to DOC data, and 670 overall have tested positive for the virus. Currently, 11 prisons, including Two Rivers, are on "Tier 4″—the highest COVID ranking within the state's prison system—meaning the entire institution must be quarantined for 14 days.
Because of the disproportionate rates of COVID in Oregon prisons, inmates who received a vaccine shouldn't be viewed as jumping the line, so to speak, says Juan Chavez, one of the attorneys representing prisoners in a class action lawsuit.
"[If] it feels like prisoners are jumping the line, that's just not the case," Chavez said, adding that infection rates are disproportionately high within prisons. "That's why it needs to be done and it needs to be done as soon as possible."
In a motion filed Jan. 21 in the ongoing class action lawsuit regarding COVID conditions against the Oregon Department of Corrections, attorneys representing prisoners wrote that inmates should be vaccinated at the same time as teachers and the elderly.
"While it is laudable to protect these populations, the Eighth Amendment does not allow this continuing deprivation of lifesaving medical care," the motion says. "Plaintiffs seek classwide injunctive relief requiring vaccinations of all adults in custody starting at the earliest date that teachers or elderly Oregonians receive vaccinations."
A judge has not yet ruled on that lawsuit. It's not clear what role the lawsuit may have played in pressuring the state to vaccinate prisoners quickly.