A federal court judge in Oregon has ordered the state prison system to inoculate every inmate who wants to be vaccinated against Covid-19. The order, the first in the nation, comes as many states have declined to make vaccinating prisoners a priority, even though severe virus outbreaks inside prisons have been common.
The ruling, handed down Tuesday night by Stacie Beckerman, a federal magistrate judge, said the state’s 12,100 prison inmates should be vaccinated as soon as possible. It was not clear on Wednesday whether the state intended to appeal.
“Our constitutional rights are not suspended during a crisis,” Judge Beckerman wrote in her opinion. “On the contrary, during difficult times we must remain the most vigilant to protect the constitutional rights of the powerless. Even when faced with limited resources, the state must fulfill its duty of protecting those in custody.”
The director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, Colette S. Peters, said in a statement Wednesday that the department was “prepared to offer and administer additional vaccines.” (Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this item mistakenly said the statement was issued Tuesday.)
“This pandemic has been exceedingly difficult for those who live and work in our institutions, and we will continue to work hard to combat this virus,” Ms. Peters said in the statement.
Over the past two months, the Oregon state prison system has been among those hardest hit by Covid-19, according to a New York Times database. In all, more than one in four inmates have been infected, and 42 have died. The cumulative total of infections has risen by 30 percent in the last four weeks, and the death toll has doubled, according to a New York Times analysis of state data.
“While many groups are rightfully anxious to receive the vaccine as soon as possible, it is undeniable that people in custody are at particular risk,” said Alice Lundell, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a nonprofit legal organization that sued the state, seeking inmate vaccinations.
A number of states, including Texas and Florida have yet to say when — or if — they intend to vaccinate prisoners, even though prisoners are far more likely than the public at large to become infected and to die from the coronavirus.
Massachusetts, North Carolina, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, among others, have begun to vaccinate inmates. To encourage as many prisoners as possible to consent to vaccinations, North Carolina, Virginia and Delaware are offering extra food and other incentives.
Oregon vaccinated more than 1,600 prisoners last month, but then said that had been a mistake, the result of miscommunication between the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Corrections about whether prisoners were eligible, officials said.
Kelly Sansburn, 48, a prisoner who has asthma and hypertension, became infected at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem last month.
“If I was offered it, I’d take it,” he said of the coronavirus vaccine. “The psychological part of it is really scary. I’m worried every day: ‘Am I going to die in here?’”
Cindy Dorson, whose husband and son are incarcerated at another facility in Salem, the Oregon State Correctional Institution, said her husband, Les Dorson, 55, had been infected in prison but had received the vaccine in mid-January.
“I’m very happy,” Ms. Dorson said. “I’m encouraged. I think we need to stop the spread and the dying. They don’t have access to medical care, like we do.”