Fury Erupts Over H1N1 Vaccine for Prisoners

Posted: October 30, 2009 in News
Tags: , ,

(Oct. 29) — While children, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems wait in hours-long lines for H1N1 vaccines, some of their counterparts behind bars have no such hassle.

Prisoners who fall into high-risk categories for swine flu will get the shots even while some members of the general public who are not high risk must wait until more of the precious doses are available.

And that has some people hopping mad.

“I have twin 2-year-olds that were three months premature and a 2-month baby, and I cannot get the vaccine for them,” wrote one commenter on the Web site of The Beaumont Enterprise, a Texas newspaper. “It’s ridiculous that inmates would get it before people who are at high risk for it.”

Another added, “There is something very wrong with a government who would care for convicted criminals before hard-working taxpayers.”

Similar responses were reported in local news outlets in Texas from Austin to Amarillo.

Massachusetts state Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, vice chairman of the Public Health Committee, was not surprised at the response at all. “If you want to get people angry,” he said, “tell them someone in prison for a very violent felony is going to get it before their grandmother in a nursing home.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines to states listing categories of people who are highest priority for receiving vaccinations against the virulent influenza strain known as swine flu. Christopher Cox, spokesman for the CDC, said the high priority guidance applies to higher-risk people whether they are in a prison, a homeless shelter, a school or a nursing home.

“What we’re looking at is vulnerability to getting sick and dying of H1N1. That’s what we’re trying to prevent,” he said.

That has raised eyebrows in states like Massachusetts and Texas, because criminals with health issues may end up getting the shot before the general public.

“Hopefully once the supplies start rolling in in greater numbers, they will be able to expand that to the general public,” Cox said.

But Montigny is angry that the vaccine isn’t already available to the general public as the peak of the flu season bears down. He said he’s not opposed to vulnerable prisoners getting the shot, but if pharmaceutical companies had done a better job, states wouldn’t have to choose between the high-risk criminals and the general public for the first doses.

The vaccine supply has been unable to meet demand because of production problems. Cox said 252 million doses will be available this flu season. But only 23.2 million are available so far.

In Texas, for instance, prison officials requested 157,000 doses to cover all inmates, including the 45,000 who are at the front of the line because they fall in that high-priority group of pregnant women, children and those with underlying health issues. They also asked for doses to cover 41,000 staff and medical workers.

Getting juveniles, pregnant inmates and those with compromised immune systems covered first is important because prisons house many people in close proximity, said Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “So something like this can spread quickly,” he said.

But Montigny said prisons aren’t the only breeding ground. Day care centers, schools, colleges and nursing homes also feature populations in close proximity. And while prisoners can get the first round of shots, their jailers cannot. The CDC’s priority list includes medical workers who work in prisons, but not the rest of the correctional facility staff.

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