By Megan Hickey

CHICAGO (CBS) — After health care workers and those in nursing homes, many are asking who should get the COVID-19 vaccine next. One controversial population on the table is people behind bars.

More than 1,000 detainees at the Cook County Jail have tested positive since March. Since March, eight detainees died at local hospitals.

Cook County Health argues detainees and prison staff should be prioritized for the vaccine.

Detainee Jeremy Coleman called CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey from inside the jail. He was on speaker phone with his fiance Melonie Smith, who has been working hard since July to try to come up with his $10,000 bond for a weapons possession charge.

“There’s 20 people in the day room right now. There’s no way we can socially distance,” Coleman said.

Smith said she has been worried sick for months.

“I don’t want to get a phone call saying that he’s been infected,” she said. “I understand that it is a jail system, but that doesn’t take away the value of his life or his health.”

So far only six states have specifically listed incarcerated people in phase 1 of their vaccine distribution plans. Cook County Health, which treats the jail’s detainees, told CBS 2 Monday that “the jail should be defined and prioritized as a congregate setting,” which would put detainees in Illinois in phase 2.

“Prisons are a special population,” said Lori Post, professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “They’re at high risk. They don’t have a lot of rights. They don’t have a lot of options.”

Post said that while it might be controversial to some, 80% of people who died from COVID-19 in jail nationwide had not been convicted of a crime. They were incarcerated awaiting their hearings and were more likely to be too poor to afford bail.

They were incarcerated awaiting their hearings and were more likely to be too poor to afford bail.

“Just because someone has a prison sentence, it doesn’t mean we’re entitled to give them a cover death sentence, and it feels like that’s what we’re doing,” Post said.

Even if detainees are prioritized the same barrier of distrust may still exist. Coleman said he would not want the vaccine. He said he is very nervous about it.

Post emphasized that prison staff is just as vulnerable as the prison population. So far four correctional officers and one deputy have passed away as result of complications due to COVID-19.

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Megan Hickey