Several ethicists told CNA that the most urgent targets for a COVID vaccine should be those in most need of it-those at highest risk of dying from the virus, whether or not they reside or work in a prison.
According to the CDC, people ages 65-74 have COVID-19 death rates that are 90 times higher than 18-29 year-olds; while those 75-84 years old are 220 times more likely to die from the virus than 18-29 year-olds.
"So obviously, there's something associated with age," Zalot told CNA. "Comorbidities," he said, "also play a big role" in virus fatalities.
"So it would seem then, that when a vaccine comes out," he added, those first in line should be "those with underlying health conditions" as well as "those who are elderly" and "the health care workers, because they're the ones who are dealing with these people."
As nursing homes are mostly filled with the elderly living in close quarters, it does make sense to vaccinate those populations first, Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, staff ethicist at NCBC, told CNA.
Prisons, on the other hand, house many younger or middle-aged inmates, he said, but elderly inmates or those with underlying health conditions should also get a vaccine quickly.
"Prisoners, simply because they committed crimes, do not renounce access to basic health care," Pacholczyk told CNA. While they may suffer restrictions on movement, they cannot be denied "other basic goods, like food, water, medicine, health care."
If a prison population was disproportionately at high risk of the virus, he said, they should get a vaccine quickly.
"If one had a penal institution where virtually all of those who were incarcerated happened to be elderly, say above 75 years of age, then they could reasonably be prioritized, along with those in nursing homes, to receive early doses of limited vaccine supplies," Fr. Pacholczyk said.
Dr. Charles Camosy, a theology professor at Fordham University, told CNA that Catholics do need to pay attention to and serve those in prison-but they may or may not be among the most vulnerable people for the virus.
"As Christians we are obviously called to have special priority for prisoners," Camosy said, "and to see the face of Christ in them."
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However, "there are many different vulnerable populations bearing the face of Christ during the pandemic," he added, "and our duty, as inspired by Catholic Social Teaching, is to focus on the most vulnerable."
Elderly and sick prisoners "should not be refused vaccines because they are prisoners," he said. "But young and relatively healthy prisoners have such little chance of having bad outcomes that we should prioritize those who are elderly and sick (outside of nursing homes) ahead of them."