Tennessee panel called vaccinating inmates a ‘public relations nightmare’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – A Tennessee advisory panel tasked with deciding in what order residents should receive the COVID-19 vaccine acknowledged that inmates in the state were high risk, but concluded that prioritizing them for inoculation could be a nightmare relationship. ”

The result: Inmates are in the last group scheduled for vaccines in the state, despite the fact that the stakeholder group in pandemic vaccine planning concluded that “if left untreated, they will be a vector of transmission of the general population “according to the records of the panel’s closed-door meetings. Obtained by The Associated Press. To date, there is no firm timetable for the launch of vaccines in prisons.

The Tennessee debate reflects a problem facing states across the country as they implement life-saving vaccines: whether to prioritize a population viewed by many as at best an afterthought, separate from the public, and ultimately the worst, as undeserving. The resistance comes despite the fact that medical experts have argued since the beginning of the pandemic that prisoners were at extremely high risk of infection, given that they live in extremely close contact with each other and have little ability to socially distance themselves.

“It shows a lack of morality and an absence of empathy to allow someone to die or put them at greater risk because they are incarcerated. … Before someone was incarcerated, they were someone’s son, mother, brother, father or sister first, and they still are and should be considered, cared for and viewed as such, ”said Jeannie Alexander, CEO from the No Exceptions Prison Collective, a Nashville-based grassroots organization.

Just a few months ago, when COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in the US, The Associated Press and The Marshall Project recorded cumulative infection rates among prison populations. The analysis found that as of mid-December, 1 in 5 state and federal prisoners in the United States had tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times that of the general population. Since then, the cases have decreased, but are still higher than the general population.

Tennessee ranks 24th in the nation in COVID-19 prisoner cases. To date, 1 in 3 of the state’s inmates, more than 38,800 in all, have tested positive for the virus since the outbreak began to spread nearly a year ago. More than 40 inmates have died from COVID-19.

So far, the state has vaccinated an unknown number of correctional personnel (Tennessee does not publish that information as other states do) but not prisoners. Twenty-four states have allowed at least part of their prison population to be vaccinated, including those who qualified according to the state’s age guidelines or who had pre-existing health conditions, according to data from the AP and Marshall Project.

At times over the past year, some of the largest coronavirus clusters in the United States were inside Tennessee prisons, with hundreds of active cases across multiple facilities.

During the spring, Trousdale Turner Correctional, a CoreCivic-run private prison based in Tennessee, saw about half of its 2,444 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus, while more than 1,100 inmates at the 1,700 capacity South Central Correctional Center contracted the virus. The state only reported 17 positive inmate cases as of Friday. Visits have been suspended for months. The state’s prison population is around 30,000, and local jails house around 19,000.

Documents from the pandemic vaccine planning stakeholder group meetings, in fact, emphasized the importance of the general public seeing that inmates “are people” who should be treated as “part of the community.” “and” if left untreated, they will be a vector of transmission in the general population. ”However, the documents admit that providing the vaccine to inmates would result in” a lot of media inquiries. ”

The panel comprises approximately 40 public health agencies, legislators, health care coalitions, emergency management, and other organizations. Because he serves in an advisory capacity, Tennessee law does not require them to meet publicly and there are no audio recordings of the meetings, according to the Health Department. The AP obtained the meeting notes through a public records request.

According to the documents, the group met for the first time, virtually, on September 22, before the vaccines were available. Tennessee’s incarcerated population emerged during that meeting, when the committee spoke about populations that may have been overlooked.

“Understand that it would be a (public relations) nightmare but a possible responsibility for the state,” states a document, which is not attributed to anyone by name.

Later, in December, when the group met to discuss the promotion of certain age groups as well as teachers, the interns were again considered.

“If they hit us hard in prisons, it affects the entire community. The disease leaves prison facilities and re-enters mainstream society as inmates abandon their sentences, ”the document says, adding that when inmates contract the disease“ it is the taxpayers who have to absorb the bill for the treatment “.

Ultimately, prison workers and jailers were raised to one of the top ranks, along with the first responders. Meanwhile, inmates remained in the last eligible group. Even now, older inmates who may qualify below the state’s age ratings are still not getting vaccinated.

Tennessee is currently ranked 47th among states in terms of the number of people it has vaccinated in the general population. Of the 7 million people in the state, more than 14% have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while more than 7% have received both injections, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state has increased eligibility for the vaccine in recent weeks. Starting next week, the vaccine will be available to people over the age of 16 who have pre-existing conditions, such as cancer, hypertension, obesity and pregnancy, as well as to caregivers and residents of homes where medically fragile children reside.


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