Vaccine Equity: What about Rikers?

The staff and incarcerated individuals at Rikers and other city jails must be among the first New Yorkers inoculated with the new COVID-19 vaccine. Both the staff and those incarcerated are some of the most vulnerable individuals during the pandemic, because social distancing is nearly impossible in the jails. Those incarcerated often sleep three feet apart in dormitories that house up to 50. At least four inmates and a dozen staff members have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, and many more have fallen seriously ill. Even with measures taken to mitigate the spread of the disease, staff must come in and out of the facilities daily. When newly arrested individuals are admitted, many are unknowingly COVID positive.

RN is a 66-year-old man who has been incarcerated in the city’s jails awaiting trial since 2017; he’s housed in an infirmary on Rikers. He has a number of serious medical conditions, both physical and mental-health related, and would be very susceptible to infection in a second wave of COVID. He’s an example of why those who are incarcerated and are much more susceptible to COVID and must be prioritized for the vaccine just as much as those living and working in nursing homes.

The coronavirus pandemic has amplified the inequities and institutional injustices of our health-care system — disproportionately affecting the city’s most vulnerable populations, such as those incarcerated in our jails. Remember: Most of those incarcerated in the jails are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. They and the staff must be prioritized equally to receive the vaccine. The virus does not distinguish between which uniform a person is wearing. We are all in the same boat here, and not vaccinating anyone living or working in a congregate setting such as a jail puts us all at risk.

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