At the city jail in Richmond, deputies barricaded the parking lot during a protest calling for more inmates to be released as COVID-19 spreads. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Public health officials in Virginia plan to begin offering COVID-19 vaccinations to inmates in state prisons and local jails when they begin the next phase of their rollout plan, according to a schedule released this week.

“I’m hoping it’s in days, not months,” said Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran. “We’re anxious for these to begin.”

The virus has spread widely through the state prison system and local jails, sickening thousands and killing at least 50 inmates and staff. But national CDC guidance has been silent on how states should prioritize inmates as they ration vaccines.

Advocacy groups that have been pushing for Northam’s administration to include inmates alongside corrections staff, who the CDC did include in its recommendations for phase 1b, as did Northam’s administration.

“It’s a relief to see this recognition of the high risk faced by incarcerated individuals,” said Shannon Ellis, a lawyer with the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center.

Under the plan released Wednesday by the Virginia Department of Health, prisoners would be given the same priority access to vaccines as frontline workers, including correctional staff; people aged 75 year’s older; and people living in homeless shelters and migrant labor camps.

“Logistical and operational considerations may result in (for example) correctional workers in a particular facility being vaccinated at the same time as the inmates in the facility,” Dr. Laurie Forlano, the health department’s Deputy Commissioner for Population Health, said in a statement. “Overlap of vaccination of groups is expected, to ensure people in Phase 1B are vaccinated as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Collapsing inmates, cold hot dogs and one nurse: quarantine in a Virginia prison

About 25,000 people are confined in state prisons, more than 7,600 of whom have contracted the virus to date. Local jails around the state hold another 24,000, but there is neither mandatory nor centralized reporting of outbreaks in the facilities.

The Marshall Project, which has tracked the spread of COVID-19 in prison systems around the country, calculates the rate of infections among prisoners in Virginia as more than 500 percent higher than the population at large.

While Ellis called the state’s decision good news, she said inmates still have questions about the roll out of the vaccine, including whether inmates will have access to medical counseling and education as they decide whether to take the vaccine.

“We have received reports from incarcerated individuals with histories of allergic reactions, for example, who have been asked by their facility to indicate whether they intend to be vaccinated or not, but who have not received any opportunity to talk about their personal risk factors with a doctor,” Ellis said. “That’s a big concern, as good education and access to medical advice is going to be essential for widespread vaccine adoption in correctional settings, as anywhere else.”

Northam’s administration has said phase 1b could begin as soon as the end of the month. In order of priority, the frontline worker category includes: police, fire, and hazmat; corrections and homeless shelter workers; childcare/K-12 teachers/staff; food and agriculture; manufacturing; grocery store workers; public transit workers; and mail carriers (USPS and private), according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Phase 1c includes other essential workers, people between 65 and 74, and people with high-risk medical conditions and disabilities.

The Virginia Department of Corrections said Thursday it was vaccinating prison medical workers as part of phase 1a, which focuses on healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities and nursing homes.

While the Virginia Department of Health’s plan for 1b doesn’t prioritize prisoners over guards, Moran said that if the supply is initially low, the state would likely prioritize staff because they travel in and out of the building, though there’s not yet evidence the vaccines protect people from spreading the virus. He said he could also envision prisoners and staff receiving vaccines at the same time depending on the supply available.

“We want to do this in an expeditious and efficient manner,” he said. “As soon as we have the vaccines we’ll administer them an expeditious and efficient manner.”