The COVID-19 vaccine will be widely distributed to incarcerated people in NY. What to know
A judge on Monday ordered New York to begin offering COVID-19 vaccines to inmates, calling it unjust to deny them access to vaccinations as coronavirus tore through prisons and jails.
Justice Alison Tuitt issued the ruling in a lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court in Bronx County as New York state announced it was expanding vaccine eligibility to ages 30 and older Tuesday.
Tuitt noted state officials "have excluded those confined in prisons and jails from the COVID-19 vaccine, while granting access to correctional workers, as well as those working and living in other government-run congregate facilities."
She added "this exclusion is by definition arbitrary and capricious" and violates equal protection laws.
The ruling comes after authorities have reported 6,273 inmates have been infected with COVID-19 amid the pandemic, including 35 deaths due to the respiratory disease, the latest state data show.
Previously, New York officials in February said they began vaccinating medically frail and elderly inmates.
Beth Garvey, acting counsel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, addressed that effort in a statement Monday evening, noting more than 19,246 vaccinations have been administered among inmates and corrections workers as of March 27.
"Our goal all along has been to implement a vaccination program that is fair and equitable, and these changes will help ensure that continues to happen," she said.
Robin DelPiore, a community leader with Center for Community Alternatives, described the judge's ruling as an important step to resolve an injustice.
"However, it is appalling and unconscionable that this took a court ruling, as thousands of incarcerated New Yorkers have tested positive for COVID-19 and dozens have died, she said in a statement.
DelPiore added Cuomo must enact other prison reforms, such as signing the the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term, or HALT, Solitary Confinement Act passed in the Legislature last week.
Tuitt's ruling required New York to immediately add inmates to the list of those eligible for vaccinations, noting they were previously excluded despite authorities, including Cuomo and Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, granting access to others living in congregate settings.
"This was an unfair and unjust decision by (New York state officials), was not based in law or fact and was an abuse of discretion," she wrote.
Tuitt continued that "incarcerated adults face the same heightened risk of infection, serious illness, and death, as people living in other congregate settings, and even more so than juveniles in detention centers, where individuals have been prioritized for the vaccine."
"Moreover, CDC has recommended those confined in jails and prisons should be vaccinated at the same time as those working in the very same facilities," she added.
State officials have previously defended their response to COVID in prisons, including measures to provide inmates and staff with surgical masks and grant early releases to thousands of inmates during the pandemic.
At the behest of Cuomo, state corrections department officials had permitted 3,055 early releases as of late October based on reviews of each case to ensure they receive appropriate services and support in the community, according to the governor's office.