Carceral facilities are epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic, placing incarcerated people at an elevated risk of COVID-19 infection. Due to the initial limited availability of COVID-19 vaccines in the United States, all states have developed allocation plans that outline a phased distribution. This study uses document analysis to compare the relative prioritization of incarcerated people, correctional staff, and other groups at increased risk of COVID-19 infection and morbidity.
We conducted a document analysis of the vaccine dissemination plans of all 50 US states and the District of Columbia using a triple-coding method. Documents included state COVID-19 vaccination plans and supplemental materials on vaccine prioritization from state health department websites as of December 31, 2020. We found that 22% of states prioritized incarcerated people in Phase 1, 29% of states in Phase 2, and 2% in Phase 3, while 47% of states did not explicitly specify in which phase people who are incarcerated will be eligible for vaccination. Incarcerated people were consistently not prioritized in Phase 1, while other vulnerable groups who shared similar environmental risk received this early prioritization. States’ plans prioritized in Phase 1: prison and jail workers (49%), law enforcement (63%), seniors (65+ years, 59%), and long-term care facility residents (100%).
This study demonstrates that states’ COVID-19 vaccine allocation plans do not prioritize incarcerated people and provide little to no guidance on vaccination protocols if they fall under other high-risk categories that receive earlier priority. Deprioritizing incarcerated people for vaccination misses a crucial opportunity for COVID-19 mitigation. It also raises ethical and equity concerns. As states move forward with their vaccine distribution, further work must be done to prioritize ethical allocation and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to incarcerated people.