Inmates Will Be Among First to Receive COVID-19 Vaccination in Md.

A chart generated by the Maryland Department of Health shows the sequence with which the COVID-19 vaccine will be administered in the state.

Maryland prison inmates considered high risk for suffering severe COVID-19-related illnesses will be among the first in the state to receive the Coronavirus vaccine, state health officials confirmed late Friday.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday evening approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in individuals 16 years of age and older. Within 24 hours of FDA approval, nearly 3 million vaccine doses began shipping across the country. A general vaccine approval is expected to follow from officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Government officials are next set to consider approval for a second COVID-19 vaccine by Moderna.

Distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine will roll out in three phases in Maryland, according to state health officials.  Following CDC guidelines, Phase 1 (Limited Vaccine Availability: Target/Priority Group Determination for Vaccination) will occur in two stages, broken down by subgroups.

“Phase 1a includes health care workers and the most vulnerable long-term care residents,” Maryland Health Department spokesman Charles Gischlar said Friday of the highest priority target groups, which includes first responders. “We expect subsequent allotments to quickly arrive in the state enabling us to move into phase 1b, which includes vulnerable inmates.”

A vaccine distribution chart provided by the Health Department illustrates the three tiers:

1A: Health care workers, Residents and staff of long-term care facilities and first responders 

1B: People at significantly higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness 

2: People in critical, essential infrastructure roles and people at moderately higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness

3: General population

The initial allotment from Pfizer and the anticipated vaccine from Moderna is estimated to be 155,000, Gischlar said. Maryland is expecting 300,000 doses of the vaccine by the end of December. 

Former Health secretary Robert R. Neall, who retired on Dec. 1, listed “People in Prisons, Jails, Detention Centers and Staff” among six priority groups to receive the vaccine in Maryland’s Phase 1 distribution, according to a draft plan submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Oct. 16. The estimated population of the inmate and staff subgroup is 54,460. The Health Department did not provide an inmate-staff breakdown of the subgroup when requested.

Overall, it is estimated that 14% of Maryland residents — or approximately 840,000 individuals — will fall into a Phase 1 vaccination category.

According to a December 2020 report by the Prison Policy Institute, Maryland is one of only six states out of 48 surveyed which “specifically listed in Phase 1 (or a Phase 1 subdivision)” inmates and corrections staff in their vaccine distribution plan. The other states are Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Nebraska and New Mexico.

In many states, correctional staff are prioritized before incarcerated people, the report states. But 38 out of 48 states recognized incarcerated people as a priority group on some level in their vaccination plan.

“COVID-19 case rate is 4 times higher in state and federal prisons than in the general population — and twice as deadly,” Prison Policy Initiative spokeswoman Wanda Bertram said in an email. “[W]hile there are rational reasons for vaccinating staff early, excluding incarcerated people from the first round of vaccinations leaves elderly and medically vulnerable people in prison — who are most at risk of dying from the virus — exposed.” 

In November, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) signed an executive order making about 1,200 prisoners eligible for early release, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus among staff and inmates in custody. Age, length and terms of remaining sentence and health concerns were among some of the factors considered for eligibility.

In 2019, approximately 32,350 inmates were incarcerated in Maryland prisons, jails and detention centers, according to figures provided by the Public Safety and Correctional Services Department last spring.

As of Dec. 11, 2,256 Maryland inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 and 14 had died, while 1,340 staff tested positive and two had died, according to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The Maryland Department of Health updates COVID-19 statistics each morning during the 10 a.m. hour.

As of Saturday, 234,647 Marylanders had tested positive and 4,954 had died.

Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected]