Thousands of Tennessee prisoners are now going to be eligible to get the coronavirus vaccine.
The announcement comes days after an Associated Press investigation found that state officials debated when to vaccinate prisoners, fearing that any decision could be deemed a “public relations nightmare.”
In the state’s vaccination plan, Tennessee prisoners are one of the last groups to get the vaccine. They’re ahead of young, healthy people, but behind every other priority group, like the elderly, medical professionals and the people who staff the prisons they live in.
But some prisoners are now going to be eligible sooner. State health commissioner Lisa Piercey says those who fit the current requirements for phase 1c can now get the vaccine, too.
“Think about how many people that are incarcerated right now qualify as of today, 65-plus or a host of medical conditions,” she says. “Unfortunately, we know that incarcerated people are more likely to have health conditions, chronic health conditions, for a lot of different reasons. And so those people are in phase today.”
The most recent state data show that about 5,200 people in Tennessee prisons are being treated for chronic health conditions like asthma and COPD, which could make them eligible for immunization. That doesn’t include obesity, one of the most common high-risk conditions for Tennesseans. TDOC says about 3% of its population is 65 or older.
Nashville health officials decided last month to vaccinate people in local jails who qualified based on their age or underlying health concerns. But at the time, the Tennessee Department of Correction told WPLN News that everyone housed inside of state prison would be inoculated in the same phase, as laid out in the state’s vaccine allocation plan.
Piercey refutes that.
“Oh, no, this was the plan all along,” she says. “But it was just never really talked about much, because there were so many uncertainties. How soon will we get to 1c? How soon would we have the supply to do that?”
Prisons have been hot spots for the coronavirus throughout the pandemic. Though visitation has been paused for about a year and the population inside is fairly stable, staff members travel in and out, often carrying the virus with them. And once COVID-19 passes through the prison gates, it can quickly spread through crowded housing quarters.
Last spring, WPLN News discovered that prisoners at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex who tested negative for the virus were not removed from cells when their roommates tested positive, because officials “presumed” that they would eventually contract the virus, too. Within weeks, about 1,300 of the 2,400 men housed at the state’s largest prison — Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility — had tested positive. Then, a few months later, more than 80% of people at the South Central Correctional Facility tested positive.
More than 6,500 Tennessee prisoners have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic, and 42 have died. Officials say that the majority of prisoners have been asymptomatic.
Eligible prisoners will now have two options if they choose to get inoculated. A spokesperson says TDOC ordered 2,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and 980 doses of the Moderna vaccine, with more to come as needed. About 3,000 doses have already been administered to TDOC staff.
Blake Farmer contributed reporting.