Late last year, the state released its plan to distribute COVID-19 vaccinations. At the top of the list were frontline health care workers, first responders and people who live in congregate settings, like nursing homes.

As the vaccine has become more available, the categories of people eligible to sign up for shots got broader. Now, anyone age 16 or older can sign up to receive one of the vaccines that have been approved for emergency use.

But five months after the first dose was administered in Maine, one congregate setting still has barely been reached by the vaccination program. It is the state’s prisons and county jails, the sites of three COVID outbreaks in the last month.

Because they don’t have freedom of movement, incarcerated people are at a heightened risk of catching and spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Potentially infected staff and new inmates come into the facilities on a daily basis, which is why corrections facilities have been among the most dangerous places in the country over the last year.

But while staff members have been eligible for vaccinations since the beginning of the year, inmates have had only a very limited opportunity to be immunized. As new, more transmissible variants enter our communities, the danger of a catastrophic outbreak increases.

The state Department of Corrections manages the prisons and has been tasked with making the vaccine available in the state’s jails, which are run by county sheriffs. The process has been slow. Just 284 of roughly 1,600 people in prisons – about 18 percent – had been vaccinated as of April 9.


And that progress is slower in Maine’s 15 county jails. Of 10 that responded to inquiries from the Portland Press Herald, only seven had administered any vaccines to people in custody, and the total number of shots administered between them was just over 100. Last year, those 10 counties averaged 1,200 inmates a night, or 80 percent of the state’s jailed population.

Outside the walls, Maine is a national leader in its effectiveness at getting people vaccinated. More than half of the eligible population had received at least one shot by the middle of last week, and the state has a higher percentage of fully vaccinated people than any other state. Now that the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is being distributed again after a weeklong pause to investigate rare complications, the state has an opportunity to slow community spread, making it safer for a return to normal activities.

But the prisons and jails are still waiting.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce told a reporter last week that he felt that earlier access to vaccines could have prevented the recent outbreak at his jail in which 51 inmates and staff tested positive for COVID.

“We still forget that the jail is a congregate facility,” he said. “Where is the priority on that?”

There’s no more time for delay. Before one of these outbreaks turn deadly, the state should make sure this vulnerable population is protected.

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