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Some court workers, not on priority list, still get vaccine

Courts nationwide have pushed for earlier vaccine access but have been turned down in many states as officials work to prioritize those who are at greatest risk.

BOISE, Idaho — A number of state and federal judges and court staffers are getting some of Idaho’s limited doses of coronavirus vaccine even though they are not on the state’s priority list, jumping ahead of older people who are supposed to be at the front of the line.

State officials, health care providers and eager vaccine seekers have interpreted the rules differently in Idaho and nationwide, creating a hodgepodge of rules that leaves some court workers who interact with prisoners and the public protected from the coronavirus while others will have to wait months for a shot.

Workers at a federal court and a county courthouse in Boise, Idaho’s largest city, were offered vaccinations Monday, though state health officials say they aren’t supposed to be eligible until sometime in April.

“Vaccinators sometimes have to make judgment calls about who fits into which priority groups, but we are counting on them to honor the groups as recommended” by Idaho’s vaccine advisory committee and approved by Gov. Brad Little, state Department of Health and Welfare spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr said.

Courts nationwide have pushed for earlier access and have been turned down in many states, which decide how the vaccine is distributed. Many follow federal guidelines, which list court personnel as “other essential workers” along with clergy, census workers and election staffers. The guidelines say front-line health care workers, police officers, grocery store workers, teachers and people 75 and older should get access to the vaccine before legal workers.

But some states have handled the courts differently.

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In the U.S. District Court in St. Louis, some employees got the option for the shot and received the first dose last month, U.S. attorney spokesman Venton Blandin said.

Federal and state courts in Alaska, California, North Carolina and elsewhere are following state guidelines that has workers further down the list. New York court officers and support staffers are eligible for the vaccine, but judges aren’t unless they’re over 65 or qualify for other reasons.

Some are feeling the pain from waiting. The U.S. District Court in southern Ohio has recorded 47 positive coronavirus cases at its courthouses. The chief judges of the two federal court districts asked Ohio health officials last week to consider judicial workers as essential employees eligible for a vaccine. No decision has been made yet.

Hundreds of court workers in Los Angeles County have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began, and three have recently died.

In Idaho, many court proceedings moved online, but jury trials are expected to resume in March. In December, the Idaho Supreme Court chief justice and U.S. District Court chief judge sent a letter to the governor and the state's top health official asking for all judges and staffers to be placed in the first priority group for vaccinations.

They are still waiting for a response, state high court spokesman Nate Poppino said.

“The Supreme Court has been looking to follow the prioritization process through the vaccine advisory committee, and no final answer has come through that,” Poppino said. “I think it's safe to say that we're interested in getting a determination on this and therefore getting some consistent guidance statewide.”

There have been scattered reports of people jumping the vaccine line, but Idaho is relying largely on the honor system and hoping residents wait to be vaccinated with their group.

Credit: AP
In this Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 file photo, empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are seen at a vaccination center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Little’s spokeswoman, Marissa Morrison, said the courts haven't asked the governor's office for permission for workers to get vaccines and the advisory committee didn't approve it, “but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're not supposed to be getting the vaccine. The onus is on them for their justification."

Idaho is vaccinating people 65 and older, and many seniors are struggling to get appointments or they're booked months away. Teachers, health care workers, law enforcement and some others are also eligible.

Confusion about who qualifies for the vaccine is prevalent.

U.S. District Court Clerk Stephen Kenyon said he believed all federal court staffers — about 70 people — were eligible because they all may be expected to interact with the public.

Fourth District Court Administrative Judge Steve Hippler said he thought the regional public health department had approved vaccines for judges, prosecutors, public defenders, court clerks and other front-line courthouse workers.

Meanwhile, in the same county, Emergency Medical Services Director Shawn Rayne, who directs vaccination clinics for Ada County employees, said he believed the health department only allowed vaccines for judges.

Christine Myron, a spokeswoman with the regional public health department, did not return a call from The Associated Press.

Kenyon said the federal court reached out to Ada County after hearing that county courthouse staffers were getting shots. He said federal court staffers interact regularly with inmates — who are at high risk of COVID-19 — and that the public would feel safer going to jury duty if they knew staffers were vaccinated.

He noted that jail staffers, correction officers and parole officers have gotten shots along with other law enforcement.

“Our courthouse staff are the last ones in this loop that have not been vaccinated," Kenyon said.

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Associated Press reporters across the U.S. contributed to this report.