ACLU defends Pritzker’s move to prioritize prisoner vaccinations

Tillis-Cunningham Debate

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — As Illinois approaches the next round of Coronavirus vaccine distributions, prison reform advocates are defending Governor Pritzker’s decision to prioritize prisoners in line ahead of patients with high-risk medical conditions.

The state receives 120,000 doses of the vaccine each week, according to an administration spokesperson. As of Monday evening, the Illinois Department of Public Health website showed 495,563 doses of the vaccine have been administered, and 105,520 people in the state are fully vaccinated with both doses.

Illinois could start to vaccinate 3.2 million essential workers and people over the age of 65 in Phase 1b as early as next week. The next round, Phase 1c, would include people ages 16-64 with high-risk medical conditions.

Federal health guidelines define essential workers in Phase 1b as firefighters, police officers, corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, U.S. Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, teachers and child care workers.

“Adults of any age with certain underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, which includes hospitalization, admission to intensive care unit, intubation or mechanical ventilation, or death,” would wait several weeks until the Phase 1c vaccinations are available, according to the CDC.

“People are panicked,” John Howard Association Executive Director Jen Vollen-Katz said Monday. “It is an ethical dilemma in a deadly pandemic to be deciding who gets vaccines first.”

Vollen-Katz was one of several advocates who signed a letter to the Pritzker administration urging them to prioritize prisoners for vaccinations due to their living conditions in close quarters with other inmates where a virus can spread rapidly. She believes the letter “did make a difference” in persuading the Pritzker administration to move inmates up in line, though the governor’s office denies any lobbying efforts influenced their decision.

Pritzker’s administration said “the federal Bureau of Prisons has already been vaccinating federal inmates,” although according to the Associated Press, that wasn’t the agency’s initial policy. Eventually, some inmates with high-risk medical conditions were added to the first wave of vaccinations along with prison guards.

“Prisons across the nation and in Illinois have had major outbreaks with hundreds of staff going in and out every day,” Pritzker administration spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh wrote in an email. “As a result, the risk of infection for incarcerated individuals and staff working in the facilities has been very high. The federal government’s guidance is clear that because of the high risk of infection, incarcerated individuals should be vaccinated in Phase 1B, along with personnel.”

That decision wasn’t always so clear cut. In fact, at times, the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control was convoluted and contradictory. For example, the CDC guidance the Pritzker administration provided to justify its position clearly stated the decision on when to vaccinate inmates was up to the discretion of each governor.

“Jurisdictions may choose to vaccinate persons who reside at congregate living facilities (e.g., correctional or detention facilities, homeless shelters, group homes, or employer provided shared housing units) at the same time as the frontline staff, because of their shared increased risk of disease,” a December 23rd, 2020, post advised.

In earlier stages, CDC guidance made no mention of inmates at all, though it did recommend prison guards for vaccinations in Phase 1b. Later, on January 11th, the CDC buried this line at the bottom of a FAQ page on another portion of its website:

“Jurisdictions are encouraged to vaccinate staff and incarcerated/detained persons of correctional or detention facilities at the same time because of their shared increased risk of disease.”

That language first appeared on the CDC website at least five days after Governor Pritzker’s office published documents that listed inmates in Phase 1b. His spokeswoman, however, says the federal health officials had already advised them to vaccinate inmates and prison guards at the same time during private briefings.

“If Donald Trump had invoked the Defense Production Act to produce more vaccine or encouraged people to wear masks to prevent infections, we wouldn’t find ourselves with such scarcity and rapid spread,” Abudayyeh said on Monday.

Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie (R-Hawthorn Woods) criticized Pritzker’s rationale as “immoral” in a Sunday interview, arguing that people with serious medical conditions should not have to wait in line behind young, healthy prisoners.

“We urge everyone to ignore the temptation of political attacks on this decision,” Director of the Corrections Reform Project at the ACLU of Illinois Camille Bennett said in a Monday statement. “The suggestion that someone should die from COVID complications simply because they are incarcerated fails to recognize the value of human life. Vaccinating prisoners will save lives in the facilities and in the communities surrounding them. This is good policy.”

“All human life is precious and prisoners deserve to be vaccinated along with the general population,” Illinois Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie responded on Monday. “Additionally, I believe inmates with pre-existing conditions that put them at greater danger of death from COVID-19 should be vaccinated along with those with pre-existing conditions in the general public. The point is that people with pre-existing conditions who are at the highest risk, whether they be incarcerated or in the general public, deserve to be vaccinated before healthy inmates.”

Asked last Friday whether he would consider moving patients with pre-existing conditions up into Phase 1b, Pritzker said, “We’re looking at that. I know that’s a recent recommendation from the federal government.”

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