A federal judge ruled that Oregon must offer Covid-19 vaccinations to all prison inmates immediately — putting them ahead of the state’s senior citizens in line for the limited supply of vaccines.
In an order issued Tuesday, US Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman wrote that inmates are particularly vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus because they live and work in close quarters and have limited ability to social distance.
“From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that our country’s prisons were uniquely vulnerable to the transmission and spread of the virus,” she wrote. “Prisons have not been spared from this reality, as COVID-19’s toll continues to mount behind bars.”
A spokesman for Oregon’s governor said the state would speed up the vaccination of adults in custody to comply with the order, and that the state does not expect the judge’s order to alter the timeline for vaccinating seniors, who were already scheduled to start receiving shots next week.
There have been more than 368,000 cases among prison inmates, according to the Covid Prison Project, which tracks Covid-19 in US correctional facilities, and more than 2,250 deaths. It said almost 3,400 Oregon inmates have tested positive and more than 40 have died of Covid-19.
Oregon has a tiered system for deciding when people will be eligible to get the vaccine.
The court ruled that prisoners should be treated as members of Phase 1A, Group 2, which includes people who live or work at residential care facilities, adult foster care, group homes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and similar congregate care sites, as well as hospice programs and mobile crisis care and related services.
People who work at correctional facilities are also in that group, but inmates had been farther down the list, in Phase 1B.
The judge said that violated the inmates’ rights.
“Our constitutional rights are not suspended during a crisis. On the contrary, during difficult times we must remain the most vigilant to protect the constitutional rights of the powerless. Even when faced with limited resources, the state must fulfill its duty of protecting those in its custody,” she wrote.
The order affects only inmates in the state prison system.
The Oregon Justice Resource Center filed a class action lawsuit against Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Department of Corrections on behalf of seven inmates.
“This will be a tremendous relief to so many people inside and their loved ones,” the center tweeted Tuesday.
Child care providers, school teachers and and staff are in Phase 1B, Group 1, and started getting the vaccine last week.
People 80 and older are in Phase 1B, Group 2, and will be able to get vaccinations starting February 8 under the state’s plan, which lowers the age each week. People 65 and older will be able to get the vaccine starting March 1.
A spokesman for Brown said the state will not appeal the judge’s decision.
“We will move ahead with a weekly approach that will integrate adults in custody into our Phase 1a distribution plans,” Deputy Communications Director Charles Boyle said in an email to CNN. “We do not anticipate that these adjustments will alter our timelines for beginning Phase 1b vaccinations, including vaccines for educators or seniors — however that is dependent on the weekly vaccine supplies we receive from the federal government.”