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Health Care Advisors, Racial Justice Advocates Call On Governor To Vaccinate Vt. Inmates

A prison fence against a blue sky.
Peter Hirschfeld
VPR File
In a letter submitted Wednesday, racial justice advocates and health care experts called on Gov. Phil Scott to vaccinate people incarcerate in Vermont, at places like Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.

The health care experts advising Gov. Phil Scott on his COVID-19 vaccine rollout say it’s time for the state to immunize everyone incarcerated in Vermont prisons, but Scott said Wednesday that he still has no plans to prioritize inmates for the vaccine.In a March 15 letter to Scott, members of the COVID-19 Vaccine Implementation Advisory Committee wrote that the state has a “duty to safeguard vulnerable populations.” And they said failure to vaccinate inmates “represents a failure of these basic public health duties.”

More from VPR: 'There's Some Gaps': Racial Justice Advocate Calls For Vt. To Revisit COVID Vax Plan

“Taking a responsible population health-based approach to equitable and effective vaccine allocation includes prioritizing those who work and live in these high-risk environments,” the committee wrote. “Vermont must offer COVID-19 vaccines to all incarcerated and detained individuals as soon as possible.”

"... With a limited supply, everyone can't be at the front of the line, so preservation of life must be the top priority." - Jason Maulucci, press secretary for Gov. Scott

Scott’s press secretary, Jason Maulucci, said in an email Wednesday that the “age-banding” prioritization system favored by the governor is the best strategy for “preservation of life.”

Maulucci said inmates age 65 and over, as well as those with qualifying medical conditions, have been provided access to the vaccine.

“As the Governor said at (Tuesday’s) media briefing, all Vermonters will be eligible for vaccines by the end of April. This of course includes inmates,” Maulucci said. “There are numerous groups, sectors and populations who have requested prioritization for the vaccines. A case can be made for each of them. But with a limited supply, everyone can’t be at the front of the line, so preservation of life must be the top priority.”

More from Vermont Edition: Is Vermont Doing Enough To Addres Racial Inequities In Its Vaccine Program?

In an interview with VPR Wednesday, Dr. Simi Ravven, president of the Vermont Medical Society, said the recent COVID-19 outbreak at a prison in Newport underscores the urgency to vaccinate incarcerated individuals as soon as possible.

She said health data shows that COVID-19 infection rates for Vermont inmates are 10-times higher than in the general population.

“(Vaccines) are important for the human rights of people who are incarcerated, who have limited ability to distance and have other mitigation strategies,” Ravven said.

Ravven said failure to prioritize inmates for COVID-19 vaccines can also have public health consequences for the six Vermont communities that host correctional facilities.

“When there is a reservoir of virus in a prison or a jail, it’s going to go back and forth to adjacent communities, so it’s not just an issue of the folks who are incarcerated,” Ravven said.

The COVID-19 Vaccine Implementation Advisory Committee’s recommendation to prioritize inmates comes on the heels of a similar call earlier this week from the Vermont branches of the NAACP.

Racial disparities in the Vermont prison population are among the highest in the nation. NAACP branch presidents Mia Schultz and Steffen Gillom said African American residents are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19.

"(Vaccines) are important for the human rights of people who are incarcerated, who have limited ability to distance and have other mitigation strategies." - Dr. Simi Ravven, president of the Vermont Medical Society

“We view the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Brown people as a humanitarian issue and their lack of access to the COVID-19 vaccine as a barrier to their well-being,” Schultz and Gillom said.

The Vaccine Implementation Advisory Committee expressed similar concerns in its letter to Scott:

“While Black Vermonters constitute only 1.4% of the state’s population, they are 9.5% of the Vermont prison population,” members of the committee said. “Black Vermonters also constitute 20% of positive COVID-19 cases in corrections.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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