Judge rules Oregon must begin vaccinating inmates as pandemic spreads in prisons

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A federal judge in Oregon ruled on Tuesday that the state must begin vaccinating its more than 14,000 inmates across 14 prisons.

In a 34-page opinion, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman issued a preliminary injunction requiring the state to include prisoners in Phase 1a, Group 2, of its ongoing vaccination rollout.

The order effectively places inmates in the same tier as people living and working in congregate long-term care facilities like senior living facilities.

In December, Oregon began vaccinating some 400 prison staffers and inmates assigned to work assignments in congregate spaces like laundromats.

“Our constitutional rights are not suspended during a crisis,” Beckerman continued. “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.”

The order follows a lawsuit filed on January 21 in federal court by seven Oregon inmates who joined an ongoing class-action lawsuit filed in April intended to force the state to vaccinate inmates across the board.

In 2020, Gov. Kate Brown commuted the sentences of 247 inmates deemed medically vulnerable to the pandemic.

According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, 3,392 inmates and 806 correctional staff have tested positive for COVID-19 as of February 1 or nearly double the number the agency reported in December. A total of 42 Oregon inmates have died from the virus to date.

One out of every five inmates in the country are thought to have contracted COVID-19 while incarcerated, The Marshall Project reported in December, or about four times the national average.

In mid-December, Oregon first began vaccinating health care workers and people in long-term care facilities as part of its Phase 1a of vaccinations. The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) estimates this group could include as many as 400,000 people.

Phase 1b, which includes teachers and school staff, began on January 25 and is estimated by OHA to include some 100,000 people.

Elders ages 80 and up will be eligible starting February 8 and include an estimated 168,000 people, according to OHA. Other elder groups will be eligible throughout the coming weeks.

COVID-19 vaccinations in Oregon are by appointment only and the state has had to limit appointments to conserve its supply of second doses. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must be taken three and four weeks apart to achieve 95% protection.

On Friday, the Oregon State Fair and Expo Center’s vaccine clinic in Salem closed its doors to first-time vaccine recipients through Wednesday.

Eligible applicants can schedule an appointment for a second dose through Salem Health’s online health records system, MyChart. People can also show up at the clinic in person with a vaccination card.

The CDC’s COVID Data Tracker showed on Wednesday that 91,240 people in Oregon, or 2% of the state’s 4.2 million population, had received both doses of the vaccines. Another 361,249 people, or 8% of the state, had received at least one dose.

Those numbers put Oregon’s vaccination rates in line with nearly half the nation, according to Becker’s Hospital Review, which rank its rollout at 23.

The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that the federal government will be releasing about a million vaccines to some 6,500 pharmacies nationwide.

Its plan calls for 21 pharmacy chains including Fred Meyer, Costco, Safeway, and Albertsons, which have announced they anticipate receiving vaccines in Oregon in the coming days.

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