Judge Rules That Oregon Inmates Must Receive COVID-19 Vaccines “As Soon As Possible”

Since the onset of the pandemic, nearly 3,400 inmates have tested positive for the virus, and 42 have died.

On Feb. 2, a federal judge ordered state officials to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all inmates in Oregon state prisons "as soon as possible." The governor's office says it will comply—adding prisoners to the teachers, healthcare workers and nursing home residents at the front of the vaccine line.

The order is in a class-action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Portland in April of 2020 called Maney v. Brown. The plaintiffs allege that the Oregon Department of Corrections "willfully and wantonly ignored the public health threat caused by this global pandemic." The plaintiffs, represented by the prison rights group, the Oregon Justice Resource Center, sought to improve prison conditions amid rising COVID-19 cases, and to reduce the prison population.

In a January 2021 filing, the plaintiffs sought injunctive relief for the entire class requiring vaccinations for all people incarcerated in Oregon "at the earliest date that teachers or elderly Oregonians receive vaccinations."

As WW first reported, DOC inadvertently vaccinated over 1,300 "older adults" in mid-January due to a miscommunication of who was eligible for a vaccine under the state's 1A criteria.

"The Court acknowledges that ODOC has vaccinated the most vulnerable individuals in ODOC custody (albeit due to a misunderstanding)," Judge Stacie Beckerman wrote. "ODOC's rush to vaccinate its most vulnerable [adults in custody] as quickly as possible reflects that prioritizing the vaccine for additional [adults in custody] should not be an unwelcome intrusion into the administration of its prisons. For these reasons, the Court finds that the balance of equities and public interest weighs in favor of vaccinating [adults in custody] as soon as possible."

The governor's office says the state will not appeal Beckerman's decision, and that the adults in custody will now be slated for Phase 1A of vaccine prioritization.

"We will move ahead with a weekly approach that will integrate adults in custody into our Phase 1a distribution plans," Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement. "We do not anticipate that these adjustments will alter our timelines for beginning Phase 1b vaccinations, including vaccines for educators or seniors—however that is dependent on the weekly vaccine supplies we receive from the federal government."

The order likely comes as a relief for thousands of men and women in custody in Oregon. Since the onset of the pandemic, 3,392 inmates have tested positive for the virus, according to data from the Department of Corrections. Forty-two have died after testing positive.

In addition, over 800 DOC staff members have tested positive for the virus. "Recently," Beckerman wrote in the opinion, "ODOC determined that all but one COVID-19 infection was transmitted through an ODOC staff member."

As of January 29, Beckerman wrote, DOC has administered more than 1,500 vaccines to eligible staff and contractors, adding that DOC is aware that approximately 55% of DOC staff will choose to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Alice Lundell, a spokeswoman for OJRC, said in a statement Tuesday that Beckerman's order comes as a "great relief" to people who are incarcerated and their loved ones.

"While many groups are rightfully anxious to receive the vaccine as soon as possible, it is undeniable that people in custody are at particular risk, as tragically proven by the thousands of cases and 42 deaths from COVID -19 in our prisons," Lundell wrote. "We are grateful to the court for recognizing the necessity of providing the protection of vaccination as soon as possible to our clients and to everyone in prison."

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