Philadelphia inmates could be among first groups to get COVID-19 vaccine

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By Michael D’Onofrio

Inmates in Philadelphia correctional facilities will be among the first groups to get the COVID-19 vaccine, even before prison employees.

Inmates fall into Phase 1 of the city’s vaccine distribution plan, which includes front-line workers in hospitals and nursing homes, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Tuesday. Inmates live in confined and shared spaces where it is difficult to social distance.

It remains to be determined where exactly inmates would fall in line for the vaccine but front-line workers would receive the vaccine first, Farley said.

“It is important to do them soon,” Farley said about vaccinating inmates. “I just don’t want to commit that right now because I don’t know the plans,” which his staff is in the process of working out.

Prison employees, who are considered essential employees, will likely fall into the city’s Phase 2 group, Farley said.

In Phase 2, the city will prioritize vaccinating people who were identified in Phase 1 but unable to receive a vaccine, as well as moderate-risk essential workers and people at high risk of death from the disease, like those with chronic health conditions, according to the city’s draft vaccine distribution plan filed with federal officials.

The general public is expected to receive the vaccine in Phase 3 of the city’s plan.

George Jackson, a spokesman for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said both residents and staff in correctional facilities should be prioritized in receiving the first rollout of the vaccine because they are in congregate care.

“We’re talking about stopping the spread of the virus not just behind the prison walls but stopping it into the community as well,” Jackson said.

The city could begin offering the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech as soon as next week if that vaccine receives emergency approval from federal officials this week, Farley said.

A second vaccine from Moderna could be approved by federal officials next week, which could result in Philadelphia providing that vaccine a week after that, Farley said.

The city is expected to receive a limited and as-yet-unknown number of doses of the vaccines, Farley said.

“We won’t know how many doses we get until we actually get them,” Farley said.

The virus is now surging inside Philadelphia’s four correctional facilities.

As of Tuesday, 135 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, 13 of whom are symptomatic, according to city figures. A total of 805 inmates have tested positive since the start of the pandemic.

Deana Gamble, a Kenney administration spokesman, declined in an email to reveal the breakdown of COVID-19 cases in each correctional facility, citing security concerns.

Gamble also declined to reveal how many prison employees have tested positive for the virus or are currently out sick. The administration has refused to reveal positive cases for the virus among city employees since the start of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has already killed one inmate and one prison employee, said Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney.

The spike in virus cases inside the walls of the city’s correctional facilities led the Philadelphia Department of Prisons to issue a shelter-in-place order this weekend. Inmates are confined to their cells except to shower, make phone calls or attend virtual visits with attorneys and families.

The shelter-in-place order will remain in effect “until positive cases decline and it’s determined that we can safely go into the next phase of movement inside of the facilities,” Gamble said.

The city’s jail population is 4,336, and 73.5 percent are Black.

Black Philadelphians also make up about 73 percent of staff working in the Department of Prisons, according to the city’s racial diversity report using 2018 figures.

The American Medical Association, a powerful lobbying group representing doctors nationally, adopted a new policy in November calling for incarcerated and detained individuals to be included in the initial distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Being incarcerated or detained should not be synonymous with being left totally vulnerable to COVID-19,” said AMA board member Ilse Levin in a released statement last month.

Harold Dean Trulear, an expert on criminal justice and divinity at Howard University, said including residents and staff of correctional facilities in the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations was both a social justice and public health issue.

Trulear, a West Philadelphia native who was formerly incarcerated, said confining inmates to their cells for the vast majority of the day — 23 hours a day at some U.S. correctional facilities — to stop the spread of the virus was “psychologically damaging.”

“We’ve basically had a couple million people in tortuous conditions in this country since March,” Trulear said.

Candace McKinley, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for ending cash bail, said it was positive that the city’s inmates could be included in the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations but questioned the Kenney administration’s ability to do successfully do it.

McKinley said the administration’s response to the virus’s spread inside city correctional facilities has been a “slow-moving disaster,” with some inmates experiencing unhygienic conditions and a lack of access to quality health care. She called for the release of more inmates during the pandemic, like those serving short sentences or pre-trial detention.

“They [Kenney administration officials] really have shown very little regard for the health and safety of the people they imprison or even the people that work in the jails,” McKinley said.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.