State lawmakers received conflicting information on Tuesday surrounding when prison inmates in New York would be administered the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker and Larry Schwartz, a former top aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo now handling the state’s vaccine program, remotely answered lawmaker questions on vaccine distribution.
NY1's Zack Fink reported earlier in the day lawmakers in the majority Democratic conferences in the state Senate and Assembly were told inmates in state prisons would be the next to receive the COVID-19 vaccine along with correctional officers, as part of the state’s 1b phased plan.
However, Republican Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt says the Republican conference was told the complete opposite.
“I had heard there was discussion from the governor and others, about getting the vaccine into prisoners and inmates because they are in the congregate setting category of phase 2,” Ortt said Tuesday evening in an interview.
“Getting it to them and making that a priority for the next trench. I made the comment that I found that to be problematic from the standpoint that folks who are living in nursing homes and long-term care facilities and people who are working in these facilities, that they have not gotten their first dose yet and we’re already talking about inoculating prisoners. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do that; there is a questionable priority list there.”
Ortt said when he asked point blank if inmates were next, “Larry Schwartz told me that that in fact was not the plan and said that no decision like that had been made.”
Ortt expressed concern over the mixed messages the two separate conferences received.
“Someone is either lying or being disingenuous or doesn’t know the full information,” Ortt said. “And when you’re getting a briefing at this level you would expect that that would not happen.”
When pressed for clarification on this issue, a State Health Department spokesperson sent a statement saying, “We are currently in the midst of a comprehensive approach to vaccinating all eligible populations. Corrections officers will be able to be vaccinated at community sites or other locations when they are eligible. As Governor Cuomo has repeatedly said, right now, we are focused on the population in Phase 1a.”
The rollout of the vaccine has across the country has stalled as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise. New York officials this week announced they would complete the first doses for nursing home residents, who were receiving them under what was a federal program through chain pharmacies.
But prisons have been a concern for criminal justice groups over the course of the pandemic, and some have called for the early release of older inmates to halt the spread of the virus in the facilities.
Prison advocates expressed frustration over the state’s muddled vaccine rollout plan. Many have argued that in order to protect the entire prison population, inmates have to be vaccinated along with correctional officers.
Center for Community Alternatives, Release Aging People in Prison, the #HALT Solitary Confinement Campaign, and FWD.us released a joint statement:
“After weeks of advocacy, we and tens of thousands of New Yorkers across the state are desperately hoping that the New York State Department of Health will ensure that incarcerated people - like all vulnerable New Yorkers in congregate settings - have early access to the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s the right thing to do and in line with CDC best practices."