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Opinions vary on when West Virginia inmates should be vaccinated for COVID-19

CHARLESTON — As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives approval for the first of two COVID-19 vaccines, some believe West Virginia prisons and regional jails should be higher on the list to get the vaccine first.

But officials said earlier this week that correctional officers and staff will get the vaccine long before inmates get their turn.

According to the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there are 199 active cases of COVID-19 in the 10 regional jails as of Tuesday with 119 active cases in the 11 correctional centers and prisons and three cases in the community corrections system. Seventy-eight active COVID-19 infections were reported among correctional officers and employees.

Active cases include current positive cases. Those inmates with active cases are placed in isolation. Another 1,373 inmates in prisons, regional jails, community corrections and juvenile facilities are in quarantine. The corrections department defines quarantine as “inmates/residents not showing symptoms, but separated because they are new intakes, back from a hospital for unrelated reasons, etc.”

As of Tuesday, 9,971 inmates were in the state correctional system with 3,310 employees. While no employees have died from COVID-19, five inmates have succumbed to the virus since March.

The FDA is set to approve the first vaccine for the virus from Pfizer and BioNTech after stating Tuesday the vaccines met its success criteria. An independent panel reviewed the FDA’s findings Thursday.

According to the FDA report, the first injection of the Pfizer vaccine decreased the risk of COVID-19 infection by 50 percent. A second booster shot is required a few weeks later. A similar vaccine developed by Moderna is expected to be approved by the FDA next week.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended last week states prioritize vaccinating health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities. States also submitted vaccination plans to the CDC for comment and review. West Virginia submitted its draft plan Oct. 16.

West Virginia divided its vaccine plan into phase 1-A and phase 1-B. Correctional officers and staff are 10th in line as part of phase 1-B for vaccination. Inmates were not listed as a priority for either phase 1-A or phase 1-B.

Speaking Monday, state officials said prioritizing vaccines for correctional officers and staff made the most sense since much of the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails was more due to employees bringing the virus into the facilities because of virus spread in the communities where the employees live versus newly incarcerated inmates bringing the virus into the facilities.

“Epidemiology data shows that the bulk of the infections in our prisons are coming from correctional officials bringing the virus into the facilities,” said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard, who is heading vaccine distribution planning for the state. “Correctional officers are part of the initial group with police officers. We’ll continue to look at the time sequence in the availability of the vaccine and where prisoners will fall into that.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. An Aug. 19 report by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security calls for incarcerated individuals to be vaccinated as part of the second tier of vaccinations due to the limitations of social distancing in a prison environment. On Nov. 17, the American Medical Association called for inmates and detained immigrants to receive prioritization for vaccine distribution and asked the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to include the guidance in its recommendations to states.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen the virus spread quickly in high-density populations, particularly in correctional facilities. Because of the high risk of (COVID-19) infection among people who are incarcerated, and correctional and detention center workers, the AMA is advocating for increased infection control measures, additional (personal protective equipment) and priority access to vaccines to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said AMA Board Member Ilse R. Levin.

“Being incarcerated or detained should not be synonymous with being left totally vulnerable to COVID-19. These steps are vital to protect people and stop the spread of the virus,” Levin said.

The American Friends Service Committee in West Virginia is in agreement with those calling for inmates to be included in vaccination priorities, Lida Shepherd, co-director, said.

“We certainly agree with the American Medical Association and other public health experts and I think most of us agree that those who are medically vulnerable and at high risk for exposure to COVID-19 need to be prioritized for the vaccine,” Shepherd said. “Of course, this includes front line workers like nursing home staff, healthcare workers, correctional officers, but it also includes people who are incarcerated.”

Shepherd said several factors should be considered when deciding to put inmates further up the line for vaccinations. Many jails and prisons are overcrowded and have far more inmates than capacity allows. Combine that with many of the health disparities inmates already face and that could create the perfect environment for COVID-19 to spread.

“People incarcerated face double jeopardy when it comes to risk of contracting COVID-19,” Shepherd said. “They live in overcrowded conditions. They have high rates of chronic disease, like asthma and diabetes. Therefore, they’re at that higher risk and the national studies show that incarcerated people are four times more likely to become infected than people in the general population.”

The American Friends Service Committee and other groups in the state have also called for the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the judicial branch to look at ways to release inmates who are either close to the end of their sentences or parole and release them in order to reduce overcrowding in state prisons and jails.

“Since the beginning of this pandemic, we’ve really been calling on the various branches of government to really work together to identify who can be safely released, who is nearing parole eligibility, and how can we identify some more transitional housing for people and really prioritize funding for transitional housing for people so that they can be safely released and not be at such great risk,” Shepherd said.

“The prisons are incubators for COVID-19 and outbreaks lead to community spread,” Shepherd continued. “If there’s an unwillingness to reduce overcrowding in our prisons, then that’s all the more reason that incarcerated people need to be prioritized for the vaccine.”

When the FDA gives its approval for Pfizer’s emergency authorization for the COVID-19 vaccine, doses could be available for frontline healthcare workers and long-term care residents as soon as next week. The state has already placed an order for 16,575 doses, the current weekly maximum allowed, with the state possibly receiving an additional 60,000 doses over the next several weeks. When the Moderna vaccine is approved a short time later, the state could initially receive 26,000 doses.

Shepherd said she hopes it is not too late to make sure inmates can be included for some of those initial doses, especially those who are older and have health problems.

“As West Virginians, we tend to look out for the most vulnerable among us and take care of each other,” Shepherd said. “I just think we have a real moral responsibility to protect people in our prisons, especially the many of them who are medically vulnerable and therefore doubly at risk.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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