California Deprioritizing Vaccine For Incarcerated, Homeless Sparks Outrage

As the state moves to an age-based rollout for the COVID-19 vaccine, advocates worry that people who are unhoused or incarcerated will be left behind.

As California changes its coronavirus vaccination strategy to inoculate people by age group moving forward, certain high-risk groups, including homeless and incarcerated people, have been deprioritized, leading to confusion and outrage.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced that California, which has had a slow vaccine rollout, would be moving to an age-based system for vaccine eligibility to speed up distribution. However, this would leave by the wayside groups that were next up on the priority list after the current group of eligible people (those over age 65, and workers in health, education and food industries) — including high-risk groups like people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness and people who are incarcerated.

State officials have insisted they will continue to have “equity” in mind as they allocate the COVID-19 vaccine, but it’s not clear how. Asked what this will mean for homeless and incarcerated people, California Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mark Ghaly said in a press conference Tuesday that these are “important populations,” and they’re focused on people within those groups who are over 65 or have health conditions. As for the rest: “Stay tuned... nothing specific or concrete at this moment.”

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, people experiencing homelessness are particularly at risk, as living in congregate settings like shelters or encampments can make it difficult to socially distance. People who are homeless also report higher rates of health conditions like asthma and chronic bronchitis, which can place them at greater risk for severe COVID-19 cases.

As for people who are incarcerated, California has seen massive coronavirus outbreaks in its state prisons. Over a three-month span this summer, more than 2,200 people incarcerated in a single prison, San Quentin, were infected with COVID-19, and more than two dozen died.

“It’s shameful that despite being among the most vulnerable groups, California officials are deprioritizing vaccinations for people caged away in prisons as the death toll continues to spike,” said Mohamed Shehk, spokesperson for the abolitionist group Critical Resistance. “These are preventable deaths, and Newsom will continue to have blood on his hands as long as he doesn’t act immediately to vaccinate and release prisoners.”

California has so far vaccinated less than 15% of the people incarcerated in its prisons. To date, 12,800 people have been inoculated, out of a population of about 90,000 incarcerated. Meanwhile, more than 22,000 members of prison staff have been given the vaccine.

Over the past year, more than 47,000 people incarcerated in the state’s prisons were infected with the virus, and 197 have died so far. Half a dozen prisons currently have outbreaks of more than 100 cases.

“The disparities between [vaccinations of] staff and people who are incarcerated is terrible, especially given that incarcerated people are dying at twice the rate as Californians at large,” said Kate Chatfield, policy director for the Justice Collaborative.

Given the racial disparities in the prison system — Black people make up only 6% of California residents, but account for more than a quarter of those in prisons — Chatfield noted that if the state were “committed to equity,” then “incarcerated people, as they’re in such danger, would be first in line.”

“There is absolutely no excuse for this. They have a population that they can access, day or night,” Chatfield said. “So with this setup — what is the holdup, except for conscious disregard for human life?”

Advocates have been calling on the governor to release more people from prisons. While California’s prison population has been reduced by more than 24,000 people since March ― bringing the prison population down to around 90,000, the state’s lowest prison population in three decades — advocates say that is not enough as COVID-19 continues to spread. Last weekend, protesters drove in a car caravan across the San Francisco Bay Bridge with banners reading “No state executions by COVID-19.

The California Department of Corrections told HuffPost it is “vaccinating statewide per California Department of Public Health guidelines.” The corrections department did not respond to a follow-up question about where the guidelines say incarcerated people will now fall on the priority list for vaccines.

In San Francisco, the district attorney’s office said that people in jail who are over 65 or who have serious health risks are getting initial vaccinations, but other incarcerated people have not been scheduled to get vaccines yet. The office cited “significant supply shortages of vaccines.”

Many cities and counties in California are still waiting for more vaccine to become available, which is an issue of supply from the federal government to states, as well as slow distribution from the state to the local level. For instance, even though residents over age 65, and workers in education and food, are now eligible for the vaccine statewide, the city of Berkeley says vaccine supply is still “limited” and only those over age 75 or working in health care can get vaccinated for now.

“Incarcerated people are especially vulnerable to the spread of the virus, given their close living quarters and the inability to socially distance,” said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, whose father is incarcerated in prison in New York. “Authorizing their vaccinations must be a top priority to prevent an epidemic within the pandemic — something we have already seen in prisons and jails throughout the country.”

“What is the holdup, except for conscious disregard for human life?”

- Kate Chatfield, policy director for the Justice Collaborative, on incarcerated people being deprioritized for the vaccine

When it comes to Californians experiencing homelessness, service providers remain confused as to what the changes in the state’s vaccination priorities will mean for their clients — and worried about such a high-risk population falling by the wayside.

Jennielynn Holmes, who runs Santa Rosa Catholic Charities in Northern California, said her organization hasn’t gotten guidance from the state yet. Her biggest concern is for people living unsheltered on the streets, who are “highly vulnerable” due to disproportionately higher rates of health issues and “a lack of stable access to health care and the ability to self-isolate.”

In Berkeley, Calleene Egan, director of the Berkeley Food & Housing Project, says they’ve gotten “some variation in guidelines and timelines” and are pushing to ensure “this vulnerable population is prioritized appropriately.”

California has long faced an affordable housing crisis, and the number of people who are unhoused across the state has risen dramatically in recent years. In Alameda County, which includes Berkeley and Oakland, more than 8,000 people were counted sleeping outside or in shelters in 2019, up from about 5,600 in 2017 ― a 43% rise in two years.

In San Francisco, Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness isn’t sure what the changing guidelines for vaccination will mean for unhoused people. “There was a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “It is all a bit confusing.”

“It is critical that the unhoused community not be forgotten as vaccines are rolled out,” Friedenbach said, noting that for people who are unsheltered, having vaccine appointments be reserved online, weeks or months in advance, “will be unsuccessful,” as many people “don’t have access to electricity to charge phones and devices, and often have their papers taken.”

People of color, who are disproportionately hospitalized and dying from the coronavirus nationwide, are also disproportionately represented among California’s homeless. In San Francisco, Black people make up about 6% of residents, but account for 37% of those who are unhoused.

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