Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead

Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead Credit: James Carbone

Long Island officials say they began taking steps to provide all inmates at county jails with the COVID-19 vaccine weeks ago, even before a Bronx judge ordered authorities to offer the shots to incarcerated people on Monday.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon, who manages jails in Yaphank and Riverhead, said 100 inmates will be offered the vaccine this week, while another 100 will be offered it next week.

Sheriff James Dzurenda, who oversees the Nassau County Correctional Facility in East Meadow, said his staff also began preparations weeks ago and will start offering inoculations to inmates as soon as it receives a supply of the vaccine.

"It is a goal of ours to get it done as fast as we can," Dzurenda said. "It protects the inmates, it protects the staff and it protects the community."

Both sheriffs said they will provide inmates with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it requires just one inoculation and corrections officials won’t have to track them down if they are released before they receive their second dose. Inmates may be housed at county jails for less than a day or for months.

Suffolk County jails have an adequate supply of the vaccine, Toulon said, and officials had to work through information technology issues this week before they could start administering shots.

"The numbers have to be registered with the state, but other than that, this should be a very smooth process," Toulon said.

Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt ruled on Monday that the state must offer the COVID-19 vaccine to all inmates and jails immediately, calling their eligibility exclusion "unfair and unjust."

The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed last month by two Rikers Island inmates, Charles Holden, 52, and Alberto Frias, 24, who said in court papers that they were never offered vaccinations.

The judge’s ruling came on the same day state officials announced that adults over age 30 would be eligible for the vaccine this week, and that people over age 16 would be eligible next week

The state allowed inmates 65 and over to get the vaccine on Feb. 5, about a month after non-incarcerated seniors were declared eligible. Inmates in juvenile detention centers were declared eligible for the vaccine later that month. Inmates with multiple underlying health conditions were declared eligible on March 5, about three weeks after state officials opened the vaccine to non-incarcerated people with co-morbidities.

Public health experts and advocates for inmates say correctional facilities are especially dangerous during pandemics because of crowded conditions and lack of access to soap, water and other hygienic supplies.

Lou Viscusi, president of the Suffolk Corrections Officers Association, said the union backs the judge's decision. "I support that 100%, I'm for anything that ends up with a work environment that is safer for all of us," Viscusi said.

Nassau Correction Officers Benevolent Association president Brian Sullivan said: "If giving inmates the vaccine gets us out of this pandemic, I'm for it."

Advocates for the incarcerated said inmates should have received the vaccine a long time ago.

"We began calling for vaccinations for inmates months and months ago," said Serena Liguori, executive director of New Hour for Women and Children, which provides support to women and children impacted by incarceration. She said many inmates who struggle with substance abuse, diabetes, dental problems and other conditions are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

"I think the sheriffs are well-intentioned, but where is the urgency?" added Liguori, who helped organize a rally outside the Nassau County Correctional Facility on Monday that called for vaccinations for all inmates who want it. "It is a little too little and a little too late."

Another rally organizer, Lucas Sanchez, the Long Island director of New York Communities for Change, said the vaccination delay was "obscene," adding: "Early in the pandemic it became clear that incarcerated people are some of the most vulnerable people in regards to COVID."

Dzurenda said 270 correction officers and 159 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus since March 1, 2020. "No deaths, thank God," he said.

Toulon said 165 correction officers have tested positive for the virus during that same period. Fifty-two inmates have contracted the virus in the Yaphank and Riverhead jails since March 2020. The vast majority — 40 — were infected in December during the holiday surge, Toulon said.

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