With COVID vaccines still in short supply, the state should be making every effort to get the shots to the places where they will do the most good.

That’s why the first phase went to frontline health care workers and residents of nursing homes, groups that are among those at highest risk of becoming infected.

But another group of vulnerable Mainers is going to have to wait until June or later to get a chance to be immunized. They are the approximately 3,000 adults and youths who are incarcerated in the state’s prisons and county jails.

Inmates are waiting to be vaccinated even though the two largest COVID outbreaks in the state have been at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, and the York County Jail in Alfred. Even inmates who would qualify for a vaccine in the first phase because of their age or underlying medical condition will have to wait because it would be inefficient to vaccinate small numbers of older and sicker inmates.

To make matters worse, corrections staff who have regular or intermittent contact with prisoners have been offered shots, but, shockingly, 30 percent of eligible employees have declined the offer. With the virus spreading in every community, these unvaccinated employees could be introducing COVID-19 into the facility every time they show up for work.

Incarcerated people are sitting ducks for an infectious disease outbreak. By the nature of their confinement, prisoners cannot practice social distancing. They cannot “do prison” from home. They don’t have the freedom to make choices that would let them live more safely.

This is not a popularity contest. Frontline health care workers are among the most admired people in America during this pandemic, but that’s not the reason that they are first in line for vaccination. They are there because their essential work puts them at the greatest risk of catching and spreading the infection.

Also in the first wave are people in congregate-living facilities, such as nursing homes. A prison is also a congregate living situation. So is a jail.

And it’s not as if locking inmates in will protect them from a virus that circulates outside the walls. In addition to unvaccinated staff members, there are new inmates coming into the facility all the time, and they could be carrying the virus even if their COVID test is negative. This is especially true in county jails, where inmates serving sentences of less than a year come into contact with recently arrested people before they make bail.

About a dozen states are putting at least higher-risk inmates in their first priority group for vaccines, including New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

When someone is incarcerated, the state takes a greater responsibility for protecting their health and well-being. No judge sentences any defendant to exposure to a potentially deadly virus.

State health officials know this, and they are struggling to do the most good they can with a limited supply of vaccines. Since mid-December when the first doses arrived in Maine, there have been adjustments to the plan to protect the most vulnerable Mainers.

They should not forget the people in jails and prisons and protect the people who cannot protect themselves.

This editorial was updated at 9:35 a.m. on Jan. 28 to correct the total number of incarcerated people in Maine.


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