NY Quietly Stopped Vaccinating People In State Prisons—But Promised To Resume After Questioning

COVID-19 continues to spread in New York prisons, but the effort to vaccinate the 32,000 people incarcerated in state-run facilities is currently on hold, Gothamist/WNYC has learned. The stoppage comes mere weeks after a state judge ruled that withholding the coronavirus vaccines from inmates violated their Constitutional rights to equal protection under the law.

The state Department of Correction and Community Supervision cited the federally-recommended pause on the Johnson and Johnson vaccine as the cause for the interruption. After an initial inquiry, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration did not appear to have a comprehensive plan for restarting the vaccination effort, but DOCCS provided concrete details shortly after Gothamist/WNYC pressed the governor about the topic during a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

DOCCS had previously offered the Moderna vaccine in prisons, soon after the state’s rollout began in December. During those early days, the Cuomo administration limited who was eligible to get shots while incarcerated—at times only offering doses to vulnerable inmates weeks after their counterparts gained similar rights outside of prison walls. State Judge Alison Y. Tuitt deemed this policy unlawful in late March, and Cuomo pledged to vaccinate all incarcerated people.

State prisons then switched to Johnson and Johnson earlier this month when New York moved to universal access. That shot is the only vaccine brand currently being offered to inmates, except for those getting a second dose of Moderna, DOCCS said. On April 13th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised a pause on administering Johnson and Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine after finding very rare instances of atypical blood clots among its recipients.

DOCCS initially responded Wednesday to questions about how it would handle the disruption by saying that it was working with the state Health Department to “evaluate all options as the pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine continues.”

After checking with the Department of Health, one of its spokespeople replied, “We have instructed providers to cease any administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and to hold all doses at proper temperatures until we receive further instruction.” But at his press conference Wednesday, Governor Cuomo implied that Pfizer and Moderna are already widely available in prisons. His comments contradicted the information provided by DOCCS.

“Johnson and Johnson is on pause, as it is all across the nation,” Cuomo said. “Otherwise, we’re continuing with the Pfizer and Moderna that we’ve received.”

Clinton Correctional Facility

Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison run by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, June 15th 2015 Mark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock

Following the presser, DOCCS provided an update, telling Gothamist/WNYC that “using the Moderna vaccine, the Department will resume offering vaccinations to the incarcerated population next week.”

Sophie Gebreselassie, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, says she has heard anecdotally from incarcerated people about vaccinations being halted because of the Johnson and Johnson pause. Since the pause started a week ago, 29 state inmates caught the coronavirus, as the germ continues to spread in these congregate settings. Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a women’s prison for those who are pregnant and mothers with young infants, is currently in the midst of an outbreak. To date, 16% of the women incarcerated there have received one vaccine shot, and another 9% are fully covered.

“People in the community can choose which vaccine to get and have the option to go to different providers,” Gebreselassie said. “People in prison are at the whim of DOCCS. [The state] needs to develop a plan for these sorts of pauses or supply issues that I imagine could come up over the next several months and the next rounds of vaccines.”

Some 21% of people incarcerated in state prisons have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 42.6% of the general population in New York state. About one in 10 inmates have been fully vaccinated. Since the vaccine rollout began in mid-December, 4,335 incarcerated people tested positive for COVID-19, and 17 died.