FILE - Prison, jail, inmates

(The Center Square) – North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) officials rolled out a COVID-19 vaccination plan Thursday for the state's prisons.

Prison health care workers will receive the vaccine before it is administered to offenders, starting with those 75 years old or older, officials said. With that age group in line first, other prison employees also can receive the vaccine from local health departments.

Older inmates and those with underlying conditions will be prioritized during the next phase, followed by everyone else, officials said.

While the timeline for the vaccinations in the prisons is unconfirmed, Tim Moose, chief deputy secretary at the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, said the agency put the framework in place to be ready to start the process once the vaccines arrive. He estimated that could be around mid- or late-January.

Vaccinations will be administered voluntarily, and Moose does not know how many doses the prisons will receive.

"In the absence of a definite distribution schedule, we continue to work with our partners to provide the quickest, surest and most efficient vaccination campaign possible," he said.

There are 350 active COVID-19 cases among inmates at North Carolina prisons. The rate of positive tests is 1.2%, the agency's dashboard showed. NCDPS has tested the entire prison population and staff, administering more than 80,000 tests.

The NCDPS is required to test staff members every two weeks, according to a Wake County Superior Court judge's ruling in December. Local civil rights groups sued the NCDPS, claiming the state was not doing enough to protect prisoners from contracting COVID-19.

As of Thursday, 36 inmates have died from COVID-19. Five of those deaths were during the last week of December, officials said.

A man in his early 70s from Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville who had underlying health conditions died Dec. 31 from COVID-19 complications at a nearby hospital. Nine inmates are hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms. The NCDPS released more than 21,100 inmates in 2020, Moose said, as part of the state's effort to reduce outbreaks.

Officials said seven staff members have died from COVID-19. The warden and associate warden at Tabor Correctional Institution in Tabor City died last month. Officials said reports on the severity of the prison outbreaks have been exaggerated.

"Secretary (Erik) Hooks recently said the idea that our prisons are a petri dish of infection is just not true," Moose said, noting the prison system's COVID-19 death rate was one-third of the state's 1.3%.

Recent changes to federal vaccination guidelines have given more priority to people who are incarcerated and college students. Gov. Roy Cooper and health officials modified the state's plan last week, which received some criticism. Moose said the NCDPS plan follows the model.

Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said the state's vaccine distribution plan "puts too little emphasis on age and is overly complicated, which will result in decreased confidence and line-jumping."

"As it stands now, this system puts people in their 60s dead last. It does not strike me as fair or equitable to prioritize a 19-year-old over a 64-year-old just because that 19-year-old is in prison or in college," Berger said.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for four years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.