In a letter sent Thursday, the ACLU of Montana asked Governor Bullock, Governor-Elect Gianforte, and Acting Director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services Erica Johnston to prioritize certain vulnerable or marginalized populations for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

In addition to healthcare workers, the ACLU of Montana asked the state to prioritize vaccine access for people incarcerated or working in prisons and jails; those living in congregate care settings including nursing homes; and members of tribal communities and other communities of color.  

Included in the letter:

  • Individuals living in carceral settings have higher rates of disability and chronic health issues due, in part, to the physical stress and strain imposed by imprisonment. They also often lack adequate nutrition, health care, access to fresh air, and proper hygiene measures. They have very little to no control over their exposure to COVID-19 and, as a result, are in greater danger of contracting and dying from the disease. As of December 14th, more than 475 people incarcerated at Montana State Prison and nearly 300 people incarcerated at Crossroads Correctional Center have been infected with COVID-19. More than 1,000 incarcerated people and 200 staff in DOC and DOC contract facilities have been infected. Five people, none of whom were sentenced to death, have died from COVID-19 while under state custody. Montana has a legal obligation to take care of the people it chooses to incarcerate. That is especially true here because our state’s prison and jail population, about 25 percent of which is Indigenous, reflects historic racism at all levels of our criminal legal system.
  • Long-term care facilities are home to less than one percent of the nation’s population, but residents and staff account for 40 percent of those who have died from COVID-19 nationwide. People with disabilities and older adults who live in these facilities are more likely to die or suffer serious complications if infected by COVID-19 and are typically less able to limit their exposure because of the congregate settings in which they live. In Montana, as of Oct. 7, at least 52 percent of long-term care facilities and 28 percent of assisted living facilities have reported COVID-19 cases. About 12 percent of long-term care facilities and 18 percent of assisted living facilities have had COVID-19 deaths. Montana’s COVID-19 nursing home death rate ranks second in the entire nation. 
  • Nationally, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people are approximately four times more likely than the general population to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 and approximately three times more likely to die. In Montana, Indigenous people are dying from COVID-19 at more than 8 times the rate of white people.These alarming disparities are rooted in generations of discrimination and racism against Indigenous people, which has manifested in reduced access to quality and timely health care and services (thus compounding health inequities that make COVID-19 more deadly).

The letter acknowledged that decisions regarding the allocation and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines will no doubt be difficult and complex. Montana must, however, heed its moral and legal obligations and trust responsibilities to make these decisions based on the public-health evidence, prioritizing access for those communities that have been disproportionately affected by the disease. Read the letter in full below.