SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — In a deviation from CDC guidelines, the Pritzker administration is preparing to prioritize prison inmates in the second round of Coronavirus vaccinations, according to an updated distribution plan published by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The state’s first doses of Coronavirus vaccines went to health care workers on the front lines, and to the sick and elderly living in long-term care facilities who faced the highest risk of death in outbreaks.
Pritzker’s modified plan for the next round of vaccinations would move prisoners up in the line ahead of adults with heart conditions, COPD, kidney failure, and cancer, not to mention workers in Phase 2 at restaurants, gyms, factories, hair and nail salons, and other industries with workers who face “increased risk of exposure.”
Initially, IDPH planned to vaccinate prisoners somewhere between Phase 2 and 3, which were both considered ‘Critical Populations for Vaccine Allocation’ in the state’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan published on December 4th.
Now, after advocacy groups successfully lobbied the governor, his administration has moved prisoners up in line into ‘Phase 1b,’ ahead of the homeless, patients with pre-existing conditions, and into the same grouping with teachers, soldiers, police, and firefighters. Pritzker has not offered any specific explanation for his decision at recent press conferences, other than to say he is “effectuating equity.”
“I was shocked, frankly,” Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie (R-Hawthorn Woods) said. “What the governor has been talking this entire time about his priority of saving lives; and yet in this case, he is prioritizing trying to decrease transmission over really decreasing mortality.”
McConchie graduated with a Master of Arts degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he specialized in bio-ethics, studying moral dilemmas in modern medicine.
“A 20-year-old convicted murderer who is going to be spending life in prison is going to get the vaccine faster than people who are on the outside — law abiding citizens,” McConchie said. “Not only do I think that’s wrong, I think it’s immoral.”
“This is something that really goes against the not only CDC guidelines, but really the plethora of medical science out there,” McConchie said.
The Centers for Disease Control and its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) laid out its definition of the “essential frontline workers” in ‘Phase 1b’ as those who had “close interaction with the public.” While it included corrections officers in that category, it did not list inmates anywhere among those who should receive vaccinations during the period of limited supply.
Illinois is scheduled to enter ‘Phase 1b’ one week from Monday on January 25th.
State-run prisons hold roughly 35,700 inmates, according to April 2020 data from the Illinois Department of Corrections, though that figure doesn’t account for inmates in federal or county jails. Still, Illinois inmates account for just a fraction of the 3.2 million people Pritzker hopes to include in ‘Phase 1b’ as the doses become more readily available.
The transmission and infection rate inside state-run prisons is much higher than in the civilian population. Roughly one in 12 people in Illinois (8.46%) have tested positive for COVID-19, while more than one in four inmates (27%) have come down with the virus.
The mortality rate, however, is more than twice as high in the general population as it is behind bars. Out of all the patients who tested positive with COVID-19 in Illinois, 1.7% of them died, according to IDPH data. Out of all the infected inmates in Illinois, 0.75% died, according to figures provided by the Illinois Department of Corrections.
On Monday, a reporter asked Pritzker where the press falls in line, and whether reporters would be vaccinated “ahead of inmates.” The governor didn’t directly answer the question, but said his changes are “really a focus on equity, because we know that black and brown communities have been affected by COVID in a way that others have not.”
Advocates who successfully lobbied the Governor celebrated his revised plan as compassionate.
“What is humane?” Reverend Michael Atty asked on Sunday night. “Is it humane to keep people in close confines, knowing that a contagious virus that literally has been killing people, to put them at the very bottom of the list?”
Atty, the Executive Director of the United Congregations of the Metro-East, is one of several faith leaders and advocacy groups who signed a letter to Dr. Ngozi Ezike urging the Pritzker administration to prioritize inmates in the very first wave of vaccinations along with health care workers and elderly patients in long-term care facilities.
“Some people will say, ‘Well, they did it to themselves. They got convicted, they got put in jail,'” Atty said. “As a Christian, as a person of faith, Jesus the Christ said, ‘What you do to the least of these, you do you do also to me.’ So, morally, it is our responsibility as community, as the city, as the citizens, to take care of those who the widows, the orphans, our children, our elders, those who are incarcerated, paying back their debt to society.”
In his initial vaccine rollout, Pritzker sent the very first shipments to the counties with the highest fatality rates. McConchie says he urged the governor to set aside a pool of vaccinations for doctors in ‘Phase 1b’ who can determine which of their patients in high risk categories should be vaccinated first.
“I have a family member in in that category,” McConchie said. “They have a lung and heart condition. They stay at home all the time. They actually joked with me yesterday, if they go and commit a crime, whether or not they would be able to get the vaccine faster. Because right now, it’s expected to be at least another two months before people who are under 65 who have life threatening conditions would be able to get the vaccine, while prisoners may be able to get it as early as next week.”
Atty argued the state has a moral obligation to care for those in their custody, especially since they cannot isolate to protect themselves.
“If there’s an outbreak in a state prison, they have nowhere to go,” Atty said. “If there’s an outbreak at my church, or at my job, I can go home. I don’t have to be in the presence of others who may be carriers.”
“My wife has a very good friend who is currently going through a very aggressive treatment for cancer, which lowers her immune system ability,” McConchie said. “She doesn’t have the option of staying at home. She has to go back and forth to the hospital on a regular basis in order to get the chemo treatment that she needs, and yet she is being deprioritized versus an inmate who has committed a crime and is in prison.”
Pritzker urged the public to practice patience at a virtual press conference on Friday, “because vaccine supplies are just extremely limited.”
The state’s public health director, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, also preached patience as she explained why the short supply is causing a backlog.
“There are others with similar risk categories to you who may get vaccinated first,” Ezike said on Friday. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not your turn to be vaccinated. But the amount of vaccine is so limited that there is no way for every single person to get vaccinated at the same time.”