Incarcerated People Won’t Receive Vaccine Until at Least April — But That May Not Be Set in Stone

by Carolyn Bick


Despite the close settings in which the state’s incarcerated population live, and the waves of outbreaks washing through the incarceration system, Washington State’s Department of Health (DOH) has decided that Washington’s incarcerated population will not receive the vaccine until Phase 1B-4, according to a vaccination plan the DOH announced at a DOH press conference on Jan. 6. 

Phase 1B-4 is one of the last vaccination phases included in this first phase and is scheduled to happen in April, before “Future Phases,” which are listed as happening between May and December. The Emerald has included a screenshot of this vaccination schedule below. 

A screenshot of the DOH’s vaccination schedule from a Jan. 6 press conference. (Image: Carolyn Bick)

However, this vaccination schedule doesn’t appear to be a hard-and-fast rule: as the Spokesman Review reported, Airway Heights Prison saw a massive outbreak amongst its incarcerated population and prison staff in late December 2020. The incarcerated population as well as prison staff at Airway Heights, in addition to people at other prisons that have suffered large-scale outbreaks, are now receiving vaccines. The State’s Department of Corrections regularly updates the number of COVID-19 cases amongst its incarcerated population and its staff on its own COVID-19 dashboard.

On the other hand, as the Emerald reported on Monday, a fresh outbreak at downtown Seattle’s King County Jail saw at least four people test positive for COVID-19. This newest outbreak occurred in the same unit as the 16-person outbreak in early December 2020. It is unclear though at what point a prison or jail’s COVID-19 levels are deemed serious enough for the State to bump up vaccination schedules or allow for exceptions in the laid-out vaccination schedule order. The Emerald followed up with the DOH to ask this question.

DOH Health Promotion Supervisor Danielle Koenig told the Emerald in a Jan. 7 email that some staff and incarcerated people in the state’s prisons and jails qualify for the vaccine, under Phase 1A guidelines. She referred the Emerald to this press release, dated Dec. 29, 2020, which lays out these guidelines.

However, the guidelines provided in the press release did not answer the Emerald‘s question, because only one small group of incarcerated people appear to qualify for the vaccine, under the guidelines in the press release.

The press release says that the vaccine will only be offered to Coyote Ridge Corrections Center staff who work in a longterm unit called Sage East, which houses geriatric prisoners with chronic medical needs or who need assistance with daily living. The vaccine will also be offered to those incarcerated individuals living in Sage East, which the press release says “houses less than 40 individuals.” The guidelines end by saying that the vaccine will be offered to certain medical staff at other prisons. The “less than 40” incarcerated people living in Sage East who will be offered the vaccine are the only incarcerated people whom the press release mentions.

However, according to the Spokesman Review article referenced earlier in this story, both guards and inmates at Airway Heights Corrections Center (AHCC) have already begun receiving the vaccine. It is unclear whether this is related to the widespread outbreak at AHCC.

Koenig also did not clarify whether this means incarcerated people within jails will also be getting the vaccine, as the state Department of Corrections does not run county jails. The Emerald has followed up to ask about this, too.

During the press conference on Jan. 6, in addition to sharing the newest vaccination schedule, DOH officials also shared some good case-rate news: the curve appears to be flattening. However, DOH Health Officer Dr. Scott Lindquist said, the state still is not where it needs to be. At this point, given that people did not do enough at earlier points in the pandemic to stop the spread of the virus — many kept gathering and did not wear masks — Washingtonians need to bend the curve down, not just flatten it.

Lindquist also shared several slides, one of which shows that the state’s Latinx population continues to disproportionately suffer from the effects of the virus (the Emerald has shared this image below). The state’s Latinx population makes up 34% of the total cases, despite comprising less than 15% of Washington’s total population.

A slide shared by Dr. Scott Lindquist at a Jan. 6 press conference that shows that the state’s Latinx population continues to disproportionately suffer from the effects of the novel coronavirus. (Image: Carolyn Bick)

Asst. Sec. of Health Michele Roberts shared that the State would also be rolling out an online vaccine eligibility tool, called Phase Finder, which people could use to determine if they are eligible to be vaccinated. She also said that, in partnership with Microsoft, the DOH will roll out a vaccination dashboard to track vaccinations across the state. The dashboard will show detailed data, including a breakdown by county and demographics.

Roberts said that DOH expects both Phase Finder and the dashboard to launch next week.


Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here, and check out more of their work here and here.

Featured image is a screenshot of the DOH’s vaccination schedule from a Jan. 6 press conference.