A hat tip to Gov. Jared Polis for reining in his own health department in its curious bid to let prisoners cut in line ahead of law-abiding Coloradans waiting for a COVID vaccine.
It remains unclear exactly how the state will reshuffle its forthcoming, revised priority list for allocating limited, early vaccine doses, now that the governor has sent health officials back to the drawing board. A new version of the list is due out next week.
Until then, it should come as a relief to most Coloradans that the state Department of Public Health and Environment’s first draft got torn up. Incredibly, it would have reserved vaccine for even the most violent criminals behind bars in Cañon City and other lockups around the state — before releasing it even to healthy seniors; people with compromised immune systems, and the general public. Enjoying the same priority level as prison inmates under the health department plan would have been others living in group settings like dorms and shelters. Only health-care workers and residents in long-term care facilities would get a higher priority.
The governor’s reaction this week to the health department’s misguided recommendation was reassuring:
“That won’t happen,” Polis said. “There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime. That’s obvious.”
The health department’s reasoning, as reported by The Gazette, is that its approach is on par with recommendations by other public health experts. And that’s precisely the problem. Instead of looking to the needs of Colorado and its diverse citizens amid COVID and its ripple effects, the health department is focused on what its peers say. In terms of the department’s mission, that may well make sense — but it only goes so far.
It’s a potent reminder to Colorado’s elected leadership — and especially the governor himself — that deferring to public health officials, even in a pandemic, has distinct limits. As some skeptics of Colorado’s overall response to COVID-19 have noted over the past several months, public health officers at the state and local levels aren’t elected by, or answerable to, the people. Moreover, it is precisely their deep and valuable expertise that also can limit their field of vision.
Their narrow rationale is that prisoners warrant vaccination early on because they are congregated in close quarters much of the time and are likelier to transmit a virus. Sure, that makes clinical sense, but it overlooks real-world priorities that are more pressing.
It’s not to say Colorado should punish prisoners just because they have committed crimes. They’re already paying for their crimes. And the American Civil Liberties Union representative who told The Gazette she feared vaccine might be dispensed on a basis of, “people we like and don’t like,” can rest assured most people wouldn’t go for that.
Rather, the reason it’s a mistake to give prisoners such high priority is that many other Coloradans simply need a vaccination even more. Some of them are teaching school or running our schools — if only online — while others are keeping various federal, state and local public services functional. Police and firefighters of course provide fundamental services we can’t do without — and they can’t afford to get sick.
And there are many, many Coloradans in the private sector who are desperately trying to keep our economy afloat. They are running, and working in, small shops and large enterprises. They are waiting tables — as soon as eateries and bars are allowed to reopen to indoor patrons — and cooking in kitchens. They work in retail, including of course grocery stores, as well as in warehouses. And let’s not forget the delivery workers — an economic sector with a whole new profile since COVID began keeping us home — on whom just about all of us have come to depend.
The list goes on. The fact that all of these Coloradans haven’t committed crimes against their fellow citizens is certainly noteworthy in its own right, but the main reason they warrant a higher priority for vaccination is plainly because we need them.
Prison inmates, by contrast, contribute little to any of that activity. Their lives are on hold. The rest of us do not depend on them.
Let’s be clear: Those behind bars should get immediate medical attention for any ailment that befalls them. That is their civil right while they are incarcerated, as is humane treatment in general. But as a population group that is relatively young and at least theoretically not drinking alcohol, using drugs or eating to excess, they don’t warrant a special status when it comes to doling out a vaccine.
Which is why Gov. Polis did the right thing in pushing back at his health department and setting it straight. He might want to try doing so more often.