A coronavirus vaccine is coming, and the federal prison system is among the first government entities that are set to receive it. Seeing as there have been numerous reports documenting the threat COVID-19 poses to people in prison, this should be welcome news. There’s only one problem: Sources say that prison staff will be prioritized for receiving the first batch of vaccines despite the inmate population being significantly more vulnerable to infection.
These sources—who spoke under the conditions of anonymity—told the Associated Press that the federal Bureau of Prisons has informed wardens and prison staff that they will receive the vaccine within weeks.
The internal Bureau of Prisons documents, obtained by the AP, say initial allotments of the vaccine “will be reserved for staff.” It was not immediately clear how many doses would be made available to the Bureau of Prisons.
As of Monday, there were 3,624 federal inmates and 1,225 Bureau of Prisons staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Since the first case was reported in March, 18,467 inmates and 1,736 staff have recovered from the virus. So far, 141 federal inmates and two staff members have died.
There have been more than 12 million cases in the U.S. and over 257,000 deaths. But prisons are a particular concern because social distancing is virtually nonexistent behind bars, inmates sleep in close quarters and share bathrooms with strangers. In the early days of the pandemic, prisoners and staff members said the Bureau of Prisons had run short of even the most basic supplies, like soap.
One could easily get the impression that the lives and health of those who are imprisoned aren’t regarded with much value. But even if that’s the case—which would be shameful enough—you would think that, in the interest of slowing the spread of COVID-19, the smart move would be to prioritize vaccine distribution to the part of the prison population the disease spreads among the most.
David Patton, the head of the federal defender office in New York, appears to agree.
“If true, it’s a disgrace,” Patton told AP. “Prisoners are among the very highest-risk groups for contracting COVID-19. The conditions of confinement make social distancing and proper hygiene and sanitation nearly impossible. The government should certainly prioritize prison staff, but to not also prioritize the people incarcerated is irresponsible and inhumane.”
It’s worth mentioning that no vaccine has been approved by the Trump administration yet. Pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer, along with its partner BioNTech, announced last Friday that they submitted a request to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use of a developed vaccine that, according to the most recent analysis, is 95 percent effective, NPR reports. If approved, vaccines could become available early next month.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a “limited supply” of vaccines are expected to be available before the end of the year, but that supply is expected to “continually increase in the weeks and months that follow.”