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Tennessee: Some inmates now qualify for COVID-19 vaccine

Tennessee: Some inmates now qualify for COVID-19 vaccine

(Associated Press)

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — After initially deeming that inoculating prisoners could be a "PR nightmare," Tennessee officials on Tuesday said some inmates were receiving a COVID-19 vaccine — but only those who qualify as part of other groups the state has prioritized.

The Department of Correction has ordered 2,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and 980 doses of the Moderna vaccine to be distributed to inmates who are 65 and older or have health conditions that put them in groups already given priority status by the state, department spokesperson Dorinda Carter said in an email.

"We anticipate receiving additional doses soon and will order more doses, as needed," Carter said. "The vaccine will be administered first to older inmates and those with health risks."

Carter added that the state had begun vaccinating inmates on Tuesday.

The department's announcement came two days after The Associated Press reported that an influential advisory panel tasked with determining eligibility for the vaccine in Tennessee determined that inoculating inmates as part of a priority group would result in "lots of media inquiries."

"Understand it would be a (public relations) nightmare but a possible liability to the state," read one document from a September meeting of the Pandemic Vaccine Planning Stakeholder group.

Prisoners are currently included in the last group scheduled for vaccines in Tennessee, even though the 40-plus member advisory group initially concluded that "if untreated they will be a vector of general population transmission."

Earlier this week, Tennessee opened its vaccine eligibility to those with certain high-risk health conditions, along with caregivers and households where medically fragile children reside. When the state initially announced it was expanding its eligibility list, there was no mention inmates would be included.

Just a few months ago, as COVID-19 cases spiked across the U.S., the AP and The Marshall Project tallied cumulative rates of infection among prison populations. The analysis found that by mid-December, 1 in 5 state and federal prisoners had tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times higher than the general population. Cases have since declined but remain higher than the general population.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health did not immediately return an emailed request for comment on Tuesday.

Of the state's 7 million people, 15.5% have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while more than 8% have received both shots, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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