Frail, elderly, and frontline workers in FL are in Phase 1 for vaccines, unless they are in prisons

By: - December 11, 2020 7:00 am

Credit: Richard Theis/EyeEm/Getty

Florida’s plans to prioritize vaccinations for frontline workers most likely to contract COVID-19 and vulnerable people most likely to die of it appear to exclude tens of thousands of at-risk adults and juveniles living in Florida prisons.

The state’s Oct. 16 draft vaccination plan says the Florida Department of Health “will engage” with correctional facilities but it does not cite inmates or corrections workers in any of the four phases of its vaccine rollout. An interim executive summary, dated Oct. 26, does not elaborate.

The Phoenix asked the Department of Health, the Department of Corrections, and the Department of Juvenile Justice this week to describe the status of that engagement, but none had done so by 5 p.m. Thursday.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, in Washington, D.C., Tuesday for a vaccine summit with three other governors, outlined Florida’s plan, which prioritizes long-term care facilities, frontline health workers and first responders. He did not mention incarcerated adults and juveniles.

The News Service of Florida reported Wednesday that Florida’s “final” draft was due Dec. 4 but was not made public so comparison with the Oct. 16 draft and the Oct. 26 interim summary was not possible.

In terms of incarcerated populations, Florida stands out, ranking second, below Texas, for the most COVID deaths in state prisons, according to databases managed by the COVID Prison Project and the Prison Policy Initiative, both national organizations that track data and policy regarding incarcerated populations.

Through Thursday, COVID had killed 189 inmates and four state prison employees in Florida, according to the Department of Health, which reports the toll on its website.

That is more COVID deaths than in all the federally run prisons across the nation, which incarcerate significantly more inmates than Florida state-run prisons do, even after releasing thousands of low-security-risk inmates to home confinement. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons reports 154 of its federal inmates and two employees had died from coronavirus as of Thursday.

In comparison with Florida, 15 states report that fewer than 10 inmates have died from coronavirus in their state-run prisons, including two that have reported zero, according to the COVID Prison Project.

Although 27 states list inmates, prison staff, or both in the first phase of their vaccination roll-outs, Florida and nine other states do not schedule it in their draft plans, according to a Prison Policy Initiative analysis released this week.

That analysis found that states planning to vaccinate both staff and inmates in phase 1 of their roll-outs are Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Nebraska and New Mexico. Dozens of other states plan to start with their staffs, followed early in subsequent phases by inmates, especially those with comorbidities such as lung disease or diabetes.

States that do not identify inmates or prison staff in their draft plans were Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin.

‘Spectacularly mismanaged’

“When a state like Florida has no plan to vaccinate prison staff, much less vulnerable incarcerated people, it’s a sign that this crisis is being spectacularly mismanaged,” said Wanda Bertram, spokeswoman with the Prison Policy Initiative, in emails with the Phoenix.

“Throughout the pandemic, the biggest outbreaks of COVID-19 have been in prisons and jails,” she continued. “Refusing to vaccinate people in these facilities is cruel and callous to them; it also puts people in danger who live near prisons and jails — all, presumably, because politicians don’t want to face a backlash for giving the vaccine to criminals.”

Prison Policy Initiative urges leaders to prioritize inmates and staff for vaccinations, to decrease numbers of imprisoned and detained people by transferring many to other placements, and to “resist the inevitable pressure” to ignore them while distributing vaccines elsewhere.

The Florida Department of Corrections incarcerates approximately 83,000 inmates and describes its 143-prison system as the third-largest in the nation. Its website says it employs around 23,000 staff, mostly corrections officers.

DOC reported Thursday that more than 17,000 inmates have contracted COVID-19 at some point, and nearly 2,000 more were in isolation or quarantine Thursday without yet being diagnosed. It reported that nearly 4,000 employees have tested positive for the disease.

The Corrections communications team did not answer questions Wednesday and Thursday from the Phoenix about where state prisons fit in the vaccination plan, if at all, and where it would like to fit.

The Florida Phoenix asked whether the department wants health workers, residents, and/or staff in prisons who are at elevated risk due to age or infirmity to be among the first to be vaccinated — those being populations that are, in non-prison settings, widely identified as top priorities for vaccination.

The Phoenix also asked the departments of Corrections and Health to state simply whether Florida’s draft/interim vaccination plan does or does not schedule any prison staff or inmates for early vaccinations — and whether Corrections participates in the state vaccination planning work group (at least by department name, it does not).

No information

The Department of Health media contact acknowledged the Phoenix requests but did not provide the information.

Corrections spokeswoman Kayla McLaughlin indicated the questions could not be quickly answered.

“We are working to get you responses to your inquiries here as soon as we can,” she said by email. “However, we are working with our subject matter experts in order to get you a comprehensive response — that does take some time. “

McLaughlin did readily disclose that Florida’s state prisons were incarcerating 83,0380 adults and juveniles as of Thursday and that 4,151 of those are age 65 or older.

That is the age group health experts consider most at risk from COVID, and furthermore it is considered elderly in prisons, where life spans are shorter regardless of COVID-19, according to studies aggregated by Prison Policy Initiative.

Florida also incarcerates 48,337 people in county jails, and the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice incarcerates approximately 1,300 juveniles in 21 facilities.

The private National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice reported death rates from COVID in prisons are double the non-incarcerated death rate.

On average, the commission says in a September report, the COVID-19 mortality rate within prisons (61.8 deaths per 100,000 people in prison) was twice as large as the mortality rate for the general population, after adjusting for the sex, age, and race/ethnicity of those incarcerated.

The rate of COVID-19 cases reported by state and federal prisons (7,000 cases per 100,000 people in prison) was more than four times the rate of confirmed cases per 100,000 non-incarcerated people, the commission reported.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.