The Department of Corrections began vaccinating some high-risk prisoners and prison workers this week, ranking them among the state’s first recipients of a coronavirus vaccine.

Employees and inmates in a Central Washington prison’s assisted-living ward are receiving shots, along with medical staff and long-term care inmates at a Spokane County prison with the system’s largest current outbreak.

No general-population prisoners are receiving the vaccine at this time, according to a department spokesperson.

With coronavirus vaccines in short supply, the question of how to prioritize inmates and corrections workers has been contentious nationally. The cramped conditions in prisons mimic those in long-term care facilities, public health experts say, but unlike nursing home residents, prisoners have been left off official vaccine priority recommendations.

Washington has prioritized high-risk health care workers and long-term care residents and staff for its initial “Phase 1A” vaccinations, following guidance from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a national group of doctors and health officials. A spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee said certain prisoners and prison staff fit into those groups.

“Yes, people who live and work in correctional facilities are receiving the vaccine – but that is in line with the guidance for those who are in long-term care and those healthcare workers,” spokesperson Tara Lee said in an email.

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Inslee’s office was sensitive to the notion prisons are jumping the vaccine line. Prisons, in general, “are not being prioritized right now,” Lee wrote.

The vaccines are going to staff and inmates at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center’s Sage East unit, which houses elderly inmates with chronic medical needs, and people who require assistance with daily living. The Franklin County prison was the site of a large outbreak this spring and summer. Less than 40 inmates live in the Sage East unit, according to the department.

Also, about 20 prisoners with similar assisted-living needs but who live in other facilities will be offered the priority doses.

Staff who work in medical isolation units and in-patient medical facilities throughout the state are also being prioritized, as are employees at the department’s regional sites designed to care for COVID-19 patients who don’t need hospitalization.

Besides Coyote Ridge, vaccinations have also begun at the Spokane County Airway Heights Corrections Center, the site of the prison system’s largest current outbreak, according to a Monday bulletin from the department.

Corrections officials have not said how many people have been vaccinated, or how many are slated for this or future phases.

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Before Tuesday, the state’s official statements on vaccine prioritization did not specify prisoners and corrections staff in the first group. The Department of Health’s October COVID-19 Vaccination Plan lists inmates and staff in Phase 2, along with teachers and other critical workers. The Health Department’s December 10 guidance for Phase 1A refers to “health care settings” and “assisted living facilities,” but the examples listed don’t mention prisons.

2,380 active COVID-19 cases

After avoiding widespread outbreaks earlier in the year, COVID-19 infections have recently soared at several state prisons, including Airway Heights, Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Mason County, and Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Grays Harbor County.

There are 2,380 active COVID-19 cases among inmates at the various facilities as of Tuesday, according to the DOC’s publicly reported data. Five incarcerated persons have died due to the virus. Over the course of the year, 790 DOC employees have had confirmed infections, with one death.

Advocates for prisoners and their families have pressured Inslee and the DOC over the outbreaks, saying the state should release more people from custody and improve health conditions. Some welcomed the news of the limited vaccine rollout inside prisons.

“It’s encouraging to see that they are prioritizing vaccinations for people in prisons who are at high risk and at significant danger of contracting COVID and having an awful outcome,” said Nick Straley, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services. “Unfortunately, there have already been massive outbreaks in a number of DOC facilities.”

Straley said the state should prioritize vaccinations for the general population of prisoners “as quickly as possible” as more vaccine doses arrive.

Columbia Legal Services unsuccessfully sued the state earlier this year, asking the state Supreme Court in an emergency petition to force the release of thousands of additional people from state prisons, arguing they were at unacceptable risks of COVID-19 infection and death. The court rejected the lawsuit in August, at a time when the COVID-19 outbreaks at Washington prisons were comparatively small.

Inslee and DOC have taken steps to provide more distancing for inmates, and the governor in April authorized the early release of several hundred people already nearing the ends of sentences for nonviolent crimes.