Tennessee: Some inmates now qualify for COVID-19 vaccine

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FILE – In this Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, file photo, a red tag hangs on a cell door, signifying an active COVID-19 case for its inhabitants at Faribault Prison, in Faribault, Minn. A Tennessee advisory panel tasked with determining eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine acknowledged that prison inmates in the state were high risk, but concluded that prioritizing them for inoculation could be a “public relations nightmare.” (Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — After initially deeming that inoculating prisoners could be a “PR nightmare,” Tennessee officials on Tuesday said some inmates were receiving a COVID-19 vaccine — but only those who qualify as part of other groups the state has prioritized.

The Department of Correction has ordered 2,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and 980 doses of the Moderna vaccine to be distributed to inmates who are 65 and older or have health conditions that put them in groups already given priority status by the state, department spokesperson Dorinda Carter said in an email.

“We anticipate receiving additional doses soon and will order more doses, as needed,” Carter said. “The vaccine will be administered first to older inmates and those with health risks.”

Carter added that the state had begun vaccinating inmates Tuesday.

The department’s announcement came two days after The Associated Press reported that an influential advisory panel tasked with determining eligibility for the vaccine in Tennessee determined that inoculating inmates as part of a priority group would result in “lots of media inquiries.”

“Understand it would be a (public relations) nightmare but a possible liability to the state,” read one document from a September meeting of the Pandemic Vaccine Planning Stakeholder group.

Prisoners are currently included in the last group scheduled for vaccines in Tennessee, even though the 40-plus member advisory group initially concluded that “if untreated they will be a vector of general population transmission.”

Earlier this week, Tennessee opened its vaccine eligibility to those with certain high-risk health conditions, along with caregivers and households where medically fragile children reside. When the state initially announced it was expanding its eligibility list, there was no mention inmates would be included.

Just a few months ago, as COVID-19 cases spiked across the U.S., the AP and The Marshall Project tallied cumulative rates of infection among prison populations. The analysis found that by mid-December, 1 in 5 state and federal prisoners had tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times higher than the general population. Cases have since declined but remain higher than the general population.

The Department of Health contended Tuesday that the state’s position has always been that any eligible person may receive the vaccine “regardless of employer, employment status, or the setting in which they live,” agency spokesperson Bill Christian said in an email.

However, that argument conflicts with what the correction agency told the AP last month when officials said they were not vaccinating inmates — even those who qualified based on age — because prisoners were not yet eligible to receive the shot.

Nearly 3% of the state’s 30,000 inmate population is over the age of 65, an age group that has been allowed to receive the vaccine since Feb. 22.

“Vaccination for the inmate population has not yet begun,” Carter told the AP in a Feb. 23 email in response to questions about how many inmates may have been vaccinated.

Of the state’s 7 million people, 15.5% have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while more than 8% have received both shots, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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