Cuomo changes course, allows elderly inmates to receive coronavirus vaccine

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this week that the state’s oldest inmates are now eligible for the coronavirus vaccine. 

The state Corrections Department said Thursday it is preparing to vaccinate the 1,075 people in custody who are 65 and older. 

An announcement by Corrections spokesperson Thomas Mailey reversed a previous policy that allowed vaccines for prison staff but not for prisoners, according to Gothamist. 

New York is currently vaccinating those in Phase 1a and 1b: health care workers; residents of congregate care facilities; frontline workers, such as police, teachers and grocery store employees; and people who are 65 and older.  Beginning Feb. 15, people with underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk will also be eligible for vaccination. 

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The state is currently facing a lawsuit on behalf of two men at Rikers Island who are under the age of 65 and have been denied the vaccine. They say they should be eligible because they are housed in a congregate setting. 

Asked at his Friday press briefing why prisons were not lumped in with other congregate settings, such as nursing homes, Cuomo said: “I don’t know the specific definition of ‘congregate.'”

He said the state was treating those inside prisons the same as the general population. “We are doing 65-plus and medically frail. It’s the same set of rules for both.”

Since the start of the pandemic, over 5,000 New York prisoners have contracted COVID-19 and 31 have died. 

A group of public defenders and advocacy groups said Friday that the governor’s order did little to right the injustice they saw in denying any incarcerated person a vaccine. 

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“Today’s announcement that New York will begin moving toward offering the vaccine to elderly people in prison — who have been eligible for the vaccine now for weeks — has little to do with the patently illegal and immoral practice challenged in court today,” they said in a statement posted by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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“COVID-19 is a danger for incarcerated people of all ages because of the unique risks that the [prison] setting creates. That danger is borne overwhelmingly by people of color. Every single person incarcerated in New York state needs access to the vaccine.”