The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision on Friday began administering COVID-19 vaccines to older inmates.
Advocates announced Thursday that the state would begin vaccinating incarcerated individuals age 65 and older. The Release Aging People in Prison Campaign said it was in response to a lawsuit.
New York's 1B priority group for the COVID-19 vaccine includes workers in several fields, including corrections officers. But the vaccine wasn't initially available for inmates in the facilities, even if they were eligible based on their age. The 1B group also includes people 65 and older.
"There are 1,075 people who are in the system who are 65 and older, and DOCCS is in the process of preparing to vaccinate that population consistent with statewide guidance for that age group," said Thomas Mailey, a department spokesperson. He added that the vaccines began on Friday.
The advocacy groups who urged DOCCS to vaccinate inmates are somewhat pleased. Alexander Horwitz, executive director of New Yorkers United for Justice, called the department's decision "a step in the right direction." However, he believes that it not only falls short of what's needed to protect incarcerated individuals but corrections staff and communities where prisons are located.
Theresa Grady, a community leader for the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, is the wife of an older incarcerated individual. She agrees that more should be done to ensure access to the COVID-19 vaccine in prisons.
"Because of decades of mistrust with prison health care and health care more generally in communities of color, there must be a robust plan for the state Health Department or some other health agency that isn't DOCCS to distribute, administer and provide state-of-the-art education associated with the vaccine and COVID-19," Grady said.
Because it could take months to develop such a plan, Grady urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release aging inmates from prison.
The announcement that DOCCS would begin administering COVID-19 vaccines to inmates was met with some opposition. State Sen. Rob Ortt, the top Republican in the state Senate, blasted Cuomo and claimed the governor capitulated to "left-wing advocacy groups."
"Providing vaccines to prisoners over our vulnerable populations — including those with cancer, immune diseases or other potentially fatal comorbidities — follows the politics, not the science," Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said.
Cuomo did say on Friday that residents with comorbidities, including cancer, heart disease and other chronic health conditions, will be eligible to receive the vaccine beginning Feb. 15.
As COVID-19 spread across New York, it also entered state correctional facilities. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, there have been 5,227 confirmed cases among the incarcerated population and 4,417 staff cases. Parolees account for 244 cases.
There have been 44 confirmed deaths in the DOCCS system, including 31 inmates.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.