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Incarcerated Oklahomans Begin Receiving Vaccine, But Advocates Question Priority Structure

Chris Polansky
Demonstrators outside Eddie Warrior Correctional Center on Sept. 11, 2020. Nearly every woman inside the prison contracted COVID-19.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections says COVID-19 vaccines are beginning to arrive at the state's prisons, but some advocates for the incarcerated say the state's rollout for that population is lacking.

“For almost a year, the ACLU of Oklahoma has urged Governor Stitt and policy makers to consider the impact of COVID-19 in our prisons and jails. We have stressed the potential massive loss of life and the impact on surrounding communities if people incarcerated were not made a priority during vaccine rollout," ACLU of Oklahoma director of policy and advocacy Nicole McAfee said in a statement.

"Yet here we are, well beyond ODOC’s original estimate of when those under their care would start receiving the vaccine, and the Oklahoma Department of Health is now expanding phasing access beyond people incarcerated. This comes without any distribution of vaccines to the tens of thousands of Oklahomans held in prisons and jails across the state," McAfee said. DOC Director Scott Crow said in January he hoped to get vaccinations started by February.

The state expanded vaccine eligibility last Monday into the remaining populations in phase two, including residents and staff of congregate living facilities like prisons and jails. But, unlike certain other priority groups, Oklahoma State Department of Health Commissioner Keith Reed said there was no goal date set for the incarcerated population to be vaccinated.

"We haven't set a date like we did on teachers," Reed said. "We're just making it available to [DOC]. ... We're not going to set aside a total amount of vaccine to do the entire population. We will probably give them vaccine commensurate with what they can get through over a period of time."

The state then abruptly announced on Tuesday that eligibility had expanded to all of phase three, as well -- roughly 2.5 million Oklahomans.

DOC spokesperson Justin Wolf said Thursday that roughly 10,200 inmates out of a total population of 21,683 as counted that Monday had indicated via a survey that they wanted to be vaccinated. Wolf said inmates would be able to opt in or out at later dates.

Wolf said the department hoped to administer all 3,300 doses in its initial allocation from OSDH by Saturday, March 20, and that they anticipate continuing to receive weekly allocations.

Corrections staff, Wolf said, will also have doses reserved via the department but are encouraged to seek out vaccines on their own in their communities.

The ACLU of Oklahoma statement calls on the Stitt administration to rethink the distribution.

"Our government must make every effort to protect the rights of people experiencing illness or at risk of illness, especially during a public health emergency," McAfee said. "This includes jails, prisons, and other detention facilities in the state facing barriers that often have large numbers of people who are especially vulnerable to the virus. State and county health departments should be transparent in their distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine and prioritize those currently incarcerated."

At least 7,331 inmates in DOC custody and 1,025 staff members have contracted the virus, according to the department. As of Monday, 49 inmates were listed as having died "possibly" due to COVID-19.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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