Inmate COVID vaccinations expected to begin by early March




covid-19 coronavirus vaccine
A vaccine for COVID-19 may only effectively stop the spread if enough people take it. Photo by Javier Zayas Photography | Getty Images

Inmates in Arizona’s prison system are slated to receive COVID-19 vaccinations in the last part of phase one of the state’s vaccination plan.

Under the Arizona Department of Health Service’s plan, the 35,000 or so people who are incarcerated in the state’s correctional system are part of Phase 1C of the state’s vaccination plan. That phase includes adults in congregate settings, adults with underlying medical conditions and anyone over 65 years of age, which covers more than 3.5 million people.

ADHS expects all counties to begin Phase 1C by late February or early March, according to agency spokesman Steve Elliott. Gila and Pinal counties are in Phase 1B of their vaccination plans, while the remaining 13 counties are still in Phase 1A, which covers health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, nursing homes and similar facilities.

Dr. Cara Christ, the director of ADHS, said inmates with high-risk medical conditions will be vaccinated as part of Phase 1B. That phase also includes correctional officers, who are considered essential workers by the state. Christ said some other inmates may also meet requirements for that phase, which includes all adults over 75 years old, as well as essential workers, with priority given to teachers, child care workers, law enforcement and other emergency response workers.

ADHS expects all counties to move to Phase 1B by mid-January, though some counties have already begun that phase and others could do so before the middle of the month.

It’s unclear whether inmates would become eligible for vaccination at different times based on which county they’re in, or whether the state will launch vaccinations at all correctional facilities simultaneously. For example, Pinal County, home to the Florence prison, is already in Phase 1B, and could move into 1C earlier than most other counties, as well. ADHS and the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry did not provide answers to those questions.

Fields Moseley, a spokesman for Maricopa County, said the state will handle vaccinations for inmates and correctional officers. Vaccinations for detention officers and inmates in county jails will be handled by the counties, Moseley said. Centurion, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry’s health care provider for inmates, will administer COVID-19 vaccines to the inmate population, the agency said. 

Advocates for the incarcerated have been calling on ADHS, Gov. Doug Ducey and David Shinn, director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry to prioritize vaccinations for inmates, as well as to grant early release to inmates who are elderly, medically vulnerable or within six months of their release dates.

Erika Ovalle, of the advocacy group Poder in Action, said all inmates, correctional officers and others in the prison system should be moved to phase 1A, and vaccinations should commence immediately. Because everyone lives and works in such a crowded environment, she said it makes sense to vaccinate them all at once.

“We’re upset. It’s very scary. So, we’re calling on the state, we’re calling on Doug Ducey, we’re calling on Shinn — enough is enough. They’re putting their own staff at risk. They’re putting our loved ones at risk. The blood’s on their hands,” Ovalle told the Arizona Mirror. “We want dignity for all, humanity behind those walls.”

At least 7,568 inmates in Arizona prisons have contracted COVID-19 and as many as 13 have died of the coronavirus, according to the corrections department. The agency’s records show more than 35,000 inmates in its custody as of November, though ADHS’s vaccination plan says there are more than 60,000 incarcerated adults in the state. Corrections department records also show that 1,930 staffers have had COVID-19.