Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
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Science has demonstrated that large gatherings of people in close proximity to one another can be a breeding ground for COVID-19. The phenomenon known in coronavirus nomenclature as a “superspreader event,” has the potential to sicken large swaths of people.

A well-documented study from the state of Washington examined a single choir practice consisting of 61 choir members wherein a single infected member caused 32 confirmed infections and 20 additional probable cases.

These hot spots were targeted from the earliest days of the pandemic. Nursing homes, sporting events, religious services, indoor dining have been restricted, locked down or closed. Facilities where people congregate or live - often with little or no mitigation measures such as wearing personal protective equipment or keeping socially distanced have been universally recognized as potentially life-threatening.

Yet with similar or worse conditions in the nation’s jails, prisons and detention centers, criminal justice policy makers continue to warehouse inmates. According to NPR, the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. are nearly five times as likely to test positive for COVID-19 as Americans generally and nearly three times as likely to die.

There have been outbreaks at more than 850 jails and prisons in the country, putting many prisoners incarcerated in the U.S. at risk of infection. Dr. Ross MacDonald, chief physician of New York’s Rikers Island, told TIME in March simply that, “the right preventive measures don’t exist to stop the spread of this virus in (jail and prison facilities)” - 10 months later prison mitigation measures have not improved.

Prisoners live in crowded unsanitary spaces, sharing bathrooms and dining halls where social distancing is impossible. Many inmates have conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease - making them particularly vulnerable to the effects of the virus.

To complicate things, mental health problems are rampant in correctional facilities. This makes mask wearing and social distancing virtually impossible.

No one questions whether health care workers who treat COVID-19 patients should be first in line for vaccines. Other high-priority groups include residents and employees of long-term care facilities, essential workers, the old and infirm.

According to a recent nationwide analysis by PEW’s Stateline, state plans for administering vaccines in prisons found wide variations among the states. According to a recent study by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, at least 38 states addressed incarcerated people in their vaccine plans, but most of those states prioritized prison staff over incarcerated people, and 11 states appeared to have no plans for the incarcerated.

“In terms of public health risks and priorities, I think this is straightforward public health assessment and response,” Dr. Thomas Inglesby, director of Johns Hopkins’ Center for Health Security told NPR. “All the conditions that we think about in terms of trying to control COVID, they’re all moving in the wrong direction in these facilities. They are basically the perfect conditions for superspreading events.”

Should prisoners and other detainees be given priority access to COVID-19 vaccines?

New Jersey has begun vaccinating inmates and staff at the state’s largest correctional facility. Seven states - Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Mexico and Pennsylvania - have designated inmates “Phase One” recipients for vaccines, according to the Stateline.

Obviously, the question of when inmates will receive the vaccine is a mixed bag. According to NPR, states and agencies that control distribution “face political pressure from a general public that has historically been unsympathetic to the health of incarcerated people.”

If Americans are going to accept the science that vaccines are a smart and effective way to deal with COVID-19, they must be willing to accept the science when it comes to who should get the vaccine and when.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.