ALBANY — The head of the New York State Sheriffs Association said Monday that county jails have been given no clear guidance from the state as to when the thousands of prisoners housed in those facilities will qualify for COVID-19 vaccinations.
"We have asked and we did not get an answer," said Peter Kehoe, director of the sheriffs' group.
Kehoe said he telephoned the office of state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker last month. "They said, 'Put it in an email to the commissioner and we'll get back to you.' That was more than two weeks ago, and they have not even acknowledged the question."
"It's ridiculous," added Kehoe, who has led the sheriffs' group for four decades.
Meanwhile, he said, many sheriffs are frustrated over not knowing when and where they will get dosages of the vaccine for their personnel. First responders, including police officers and sheriff's department personnel, have been placed in the state's second highest priority group for getting the vaccine, dubbed 1B.
In response to questions relating to statements by Kehoe and upstate sheriffs, Jill Montag, a spokeswoman for Zucker's agency, said the Health Department has been working with the state Department of Correctional Services and Community Supervision (DOCCS) "to develop a plan as part of the New York State COVID-19 Vaccination Program that was previously announced for the incarcerated population, including those 75 and older."
DOCCS is the agency that runs the state prisons. It has no oversight of the county jails in New York, which are administered by independently elected sheriffs. The Health Department has had a key role in developing the vaccination priority groupings.
Montag provided no information as to where the county jail prisoners will fit in in the vaccination priority groups.
Kehoe said because the prisoners are living in what amounts to a congregate care facility, where a virus could spread rapidly from one person to the next, it would be prudent to consider them a vulnerable population that should be inoculated early in the program.
"We have people all over the state ready to administer it but they have no clue as to when or where they will get the vaccine," said Kehoe.
Contacted in Delhi, Delaware County Craig DuMond said his department has succeeded in keeping the coronavirus out of the prisoner population by stopping all visits to the incarcerated population throughout the pandemic.
"We have received zero guidance from the state as far as vaccinations of inmates is concerned," DuMond said.
In Plattsburgh, Clinton County Sheriff David Favro called the state's vaccine rollout "a mess," noting the guidance has changed abruptly in recent weeks and still offers no signals as to when the prisoner population will be eligible for the shots.
The North Country, Favro said, has various layers of law enforcement officers, ranging from U.S. Border Patrol agents to state troopers to local police. "Nobody has gotten vaccines," he said.
Favro said tight restrictions on prisoner movements have helped to minimize the risk within the local jail. "Why waste the vaccine (on prisoners) when you have elderly people who need to have medical procedures or need to have their eyes checked or go out to get medications?" he asked.
On a related front, the influential chairman of the state Senate Health Committee, Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-the Bronx, called for improvements in the Cuomo administration's vaccine program.
"We need decisive action that is driven by data and cooperation, not political showmanship," Rivera said.
Rivera said the state should make all of its vaccine data "transparent" and offer the public "timely notice" each time the program is adjusted.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the demand for vaccine doses is outpacing what is being supplied to the state. New York is now limited to 300,000 dose of the vaccines each week.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org