On New York State List of ten “guiding principles” For the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine, No. 4 promises a “fair and clinically controlled distribution”. In other words, the government will prioritize people based on their risk of contracting the virus or developing serious illness from it. “Unrelated factors such as wealth or status,” adds the policy, “will not affect distribution.” Governor Andrew Cuomo has publicly approved that promise. “COVID has exposed the underlying injustice and inequality in this society from the very beginning,” he said in November when he held a press conference with black leaders about the federal government’s early vaccination plans. And yet, two months since the first New Yorker got a vaccine, the last Status data show that vaccine-able Black and Hispanic New Yorkers, the same people who got disproportionately ill and died in the past year, receive shots well below those of vaccine-able whites and Asians. And although Cuomo took steps to address those numbers – on Wednesday, he did announced that the state would open special vaccination centers in “socially deprived communities” – there is a simple, fundamental step towards justice that the governor has so far refused.
A week ago five legal aid groups sued Cuomo and State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker for denying immunization rights to the more than 30,000 people currently incarcerated in New York prisons and prisons. The lawsuit argues that refusing to vaccinate people in custody puts lives at risk, violates public health guidelines, raises civil rights issues, and undermines the very justice that Cuomo is committed to. The lawsuit indicates that detainees have been excluded from the early stages of government vaccine rollout, even as people in other so-called community settings – nursing homes, homeless shelters, government treatment centers for mental health problems and drug addiction. and proofreaders working in prisons and jails have been admitted. (The current CDC guidelines recommend vaccinating staff and inmates in prisons and jails at the same time.) What distinction might the state make between these groups of people? Isn’t inmate status as inmates the kind of “unrelated factor” the state promised to ignore?
You can choose your case for vaccinating inmates. Jail and jail breakouts threaten the communities outside the walls as well as the people inside. The walls mean nothing to a virus. In New York, at least one outbreak in a prison near Albany was linked to infections in an assisted living facility and elementary school. according to for now. “These are semipermeable membranes,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Yale, who filed an affidavit in support of the lawsuit. “If you want to keep your investment in your prison systems, if you want to imprison people, at least give them the goddamn vaccine.” Add to this the unique burden the pandemic has placed on people incarcerated, especially those on trial. For almost a year, courts have been operating with limited capacity, visits have been banned and contact with lawyers has been restricted. “Our clients are suffering,” Meghna Philip, an attorney for Harlem’s Neighborhood Defender Service, one of the groups that brought the case, told me. Rachael Bedard, a geriatrician who works with some of the oldest and sickest people at Rikers, described vaccination as “an essential step in reopening facilities to basic functions”.
Nationwide, the introduction of vaccines was plagued by a short supply. In developing a plan to distribute a limited number of doses, New York promised to follow science. However, it is widespread that the governor ultimately has the final say on eligibility. New Yorkers already approved for the vaccination include hospital workers, police officers, firefighters, teachers, grocers, rangers, and investigators with the State Liquor Authority. In early February, after Cuomo announced that New York restaurants would be allowed to dine indoors again in time for Valentine’s Day, restaurant workers asked to be shortlisted. Under pressure from reporters, Cuomo initially dismissed the outcry as a “cheap, insincere discussion” and described the approval list as a zero-sum document. “Would you like to add someone?” he said. “Who do you want to remove?” But the next day he did reverse courseAdd restaurant employees to the list without removing anyone. Is it a blow to field researchers who work for the State Liquor Authority to wonder if there might be a justice issue if they qualify for the vaccine in front of incarcerated people? “You can’t bring people to safety in prisons,” said Gonsalves. “Just because I stole a car when I was seventeen doesn’t mean I deserve a death sentence for not doing the right thing my governor.”
In New York, more than five thousand inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began, and thirty-one have died. Inequality is embedded in these numbers. According to the legal aid groups lawsuit, there were days when up to ninety percent of the people detained in COVID-19 wards on Rikers Island and other prisons in New York City were either Black or Hispanic. The legal aid groups brought the case on behalf of Charles Holden and Alberto Frias, two men who spent most of the past year with Rikers. In court files, fifty-two-year-old Holden describes life in a dormitory with fifty beds, in which forty-eight men are housed, who share dining, toilet, sink, shower, telephone, television and recreation rooms that are only a few centimeters at night sleep apart. The twenty-four-year-old Frias suffers from asthma, which makes him all the more afraid of contracting the virus. “My unit eats our meals at tables in the common room,” said Frias in an affidavit filed as part of the lawsuit. “Each table seats six, and I often sit shoulder to shoulder with other detainees when I eat. Nobody wears a mask while eating. Generally, detainees in my unit do not wear masks in the common areas of the residential area. “
Before the lawsuit was filed, a small number of state inmates with underlying health conditions had been vaccinated last Thursday. After the lawsuit was filed, the state government announced that it would begin vaccinating all detainees over sixty-five. For Philip of the Neighborhood Defender Service, the quick response only betrayed the efforts the state was making to keep vaccines away from people behind bars, as technically the state’s plans were for anyone over 65 years of age to be eligible for the vaccine in mid-January. The state has yet to say when it will question the rest of its incarcerated population for the vaccine, which brings New York back behind 27 states that have already included inmates in their public plans and way behind states like Massachusetts made Detainees who are eligible at the start of the vaccine rollout. A federal judge in Oregon recently ordered the state should offer the vaccine to anyone who wants it. “Our constitutional rights are not abolished during a crisis,” wrote Judge Stacie Beckerman in her opinion. “Even when the state is faced with limited resources, it has to fulfill its duty to protect the prisoners.”
I asked the governor’s office when the vaccine will be offered to the entire imprisoned population of the state. On Wednesday I received an email response from Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for the corrections and community oversight department. “DOCCS began vaccinating employees and detainees aged 65 and over on Friday, February 5th,” Mailey wrote. “Around 1400 vaccinations have been given to date. The vaccination effort continues this week. “Research has shown that while the number of infections and deaths in the New York prison system is grim, it is in almost every other state even worse. Nationwide, nearly four hundred thousand people have tested positive in prison since the pandemic began, and more than twenty-four hundred have died. New York officials are extolling the fact that more than three thousand state inmates were released early during the pandemic and that the total incarcerated population in state facilities has fallen to its lowest level since 1984. Until the entire imprisoned population is vaccinated or the pandemic ends, comparatively lower infection rates are no guarantee against future outbreaks, illnesses and deaths.
The issue of vaccinating inmates is also another point of disagreement over pandemic policies between Cuomo and New York City leaders. In December, Dave Chokshi, the city’s health commissioner, told A city council hearing that prisons and prisons such as nursing homes “will be part of the prioritization for the first phase”. Since then, elected officials, public health officials and correctional officers in the city have spoken out in favor of all inmates being eligible for the vaccine. “The state takes that responsibility when it includes people. It’s one of the reasons it needs to be looked at differently,” said Robert Cohen, a doctor and former Rikers health officer. Cohen is now a member of the New York City Board of Correction, which oversees the city’s prisons. “I think the governor has a lack of respect for the people inside.” Bill Neidhardt, press secretary for Mayor Bill de Blasio, was blunt when I asked him about the mayor’s attitude. “The governor is wrong and people in prison should be vaccinated,” Neidhardt said. “The reason for not vaccinating detainees has anything to do with politics and nothing to do with health, science, or racial justice.” Vaccination programs in prisons and prisons could be set up “quickly” and “efficiently,” Neidhardt added. “It should be done immediately,” he said. I asked if de Blasio Cuomo had given his position. “It was made very clear to the governor and his team that we want to vaccinate detainees,” said Neidhardt.