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Maryland inmate coronavirus death toll increases to 18 as questions remain over state’s vaccination schedule

North Branch Correctional Institution in Cresaptown is one of the prisons where an inmate recently died after contracting the coronavirus.
North Branch Correctional Institution in Cresaptown is one of the prisons where an inmate recently died after contracting the coronavirus. (John A. Bone/AP)

Two more Maryland inmates have died of COVID-19 this month, increasing the inmate death toll to 18, according to the the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

On Dec. 18, a man in his early 60s who was being housed in the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland died. The inmate was hospitalized at the UPMC Western Maryland hospital, the department said.

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The next day, an inmate in his 50s who was housed at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland died. The inmate had also been hospitalized at UPMC Western Maryland before his death, according to the department. The department does not provide identifying information about the deceased prisoners beyond their age range and facilities they were housed in.

The recent deaths of inmates comes amid a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths across Maryland, including inside of state-operated facilities, according to the department.

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A total of five inmates have died from the coronavirus in December alones.

Since the start of the pandemic, a total of 3,090 inmates, along with 1,638 correctional staff members, have tested positive for the virus, according to the department.

The state began rolling out its mass vaccination plan two weeks ago and has since administered 47,012 vaccines, according to Maryland Department of Health figures. As of Wednesday, more than 80% of the 191,075 doses from the initial allocations of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have not been administered.

Health Department spokesman Charles Gischlar said the state was focused on vaccinating those in Phase 1A of the schedule, including front-line health care workers, nursing home residents and their staffers. He did not say which phase would include the state’s prison population.

“The State of Maryland is working to get nursing homes and hospitals their doses as soon as possible and hopes to have more comprehensive answers at a later point as we get additional information from the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed,” Gischlar said Monday in an email.

Public health experts said the coronavirus spreads easily in congregate living facilities, and does not discriminate between long-term care centers, jailhouses or detention centers.

Dr. Monica Peek, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and a health disparities researcher, said while national guidance recommends phasing in incarcerated individuals and detention center personnel after the first rounds, inmates and guards account for a constantly growing segment of the infections and fatalities across the country.

“The issue is that there’s the social stigma as to why they’re living in congregate settings, and less of a political will to protect them,” Peek said. “The vaccine is not for who, socially, deserves it more from a moral standpoint, but who is at highest risk of getting the disease and transmitting the disease.”

But Maryland, like other states, has been hampered by budget constraints and federal government allocation delays. The vaccine supply shortage has forced state officials to make difficult decisions about prioritization, with no “absolute right answers,” to look to, said Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“If you’re in real scarcity of vaccines, it would make sense to prioritize those people who are at highest risk of bad outcomes, should they get infected, before you vaccinate people who are more likely to get infected but not necessarily have a bad outcome,” Toner said. “But you can have really smart people, all with the same information, come up with different orders as to who should get vaccinated first.”

Marc Schindler of the Justice Police Institute, based in Washington, D.C., pointed to spikes of confirmed COVID-19 cases in prisons and inmate deaths as areas of concern. Schindler says inmates are ultimately even more vulnerable to the virus as they cannot control their living conditions.

“As with their proposed plan, incarcerated people and staff should be in phase 1 for the vaccine distribution,“ Schindler said.

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“Incarcerated people who have no control of their environment and are subject to state control along with the staff who are returning to their community, it is critically important that they be tested regularly and be on that first phase of vaccination.”

The Eastern Correctional Institution has the highest number of inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic at 898. The Western Correctional Institution, North Branch Correctional Institution and Maryland Correctional Institution located in Hagerstown have seen the most deaths for inmates out of any facilities operating in the state totaling three deaths in each prison, according to department numbers.

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