Court system workers will be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine earlier than the general population after the state added judges, clerks, defense attorneys and prosecutors to Phase 2 of the state’s vaccine priority list. The state anticipates that vaccine distribution for those in Phase 2, which also includes adults over 65, teachers, and food and retail service workers, will occur in February and March.
The state made the change after the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Committee for Public Counsel Services jointly advocated for the inclusion of defense attorneys in this earlier phase. Last week, in a letter to Governor Charlie Baker, the MBA and CPCS asked that public defenders, private assigned counsel (e.g., bar advocates) and supporting professionals be given priority for the vaccine due to their increased risk of COVID-19 exposure.
The letter said, in part: "While CPCS has done everything possible to reduce the risk of transmission, its attorneys, investigators, and social workers daily put themselves in harm’s way to provide their clients their constitutional right to zealous representation. We ask they be considered Phase 2 workers for the purpose of COVID-19 vaccination priority."
The MBA-CPCS letter cited federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in December, which recommended that public defenders and other court personnel be given priority for the vaccines due to their importance in maintaining “critical infrastructure operations.” The letter also noted that they work closely with vulnerable populations due to their increased interaction with incarcerated individuals (who are in Phase 1 of the vaccine priority list) and other indigent clients, many of whom live in high-risk communities.
MBA Chief Legal Counsel Martin W. Healy welcomed the state’s decision, saying: "We’re grateful to Governor Baker and to Executive Office of Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders for recognizing the importance of protecting attorneys and other court personnel who keep our courts functioning and are at increased risk for exposure to COVID-19 due to their daily work with vulnerable clients. It’s particularly vital that we safeguard those on the front lines of our criminal justice system, where individuals’ rights are at stake and where the courts are already dealing with a sizable backlog of cases due to the pandemic."
MBA President Denise I. Murphy, who co-signed the letter with CPCS Chief Counsel Anthony J. Benedetti, said: "CPCS staff lawyers, bar advocates and others who ensure that indigent individuals receive equal protection under the law in the commonwealth are performing essential work daily in their clients’ homes, our jails, prisons and courthouses. Giving these members of our legal community earlier priority for the vaccine is absolutely the right thing to do, and I thank the governor and Secretary Sudders for their clear support."
In a news item posted to the CPCS website earlier this week, Benedetti noted, "It is clear that the state took our concerns seriously." The CPCS chief counsel also said: "We appreciate that Governor Baker, Secretary Sudders and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services quickly responded to our request. We also owe a debt of gratitude to MBA leadership, which continues to support the work that we do, and was ready and willing to stand with us as we made this request."