Edward Anderson rolled his wheelchair into the exam room and pushed up the sleeve of his white T-shirt. The nurse leaned in to pinch the newly exposed arm, injecting him with a dose of the Moderna vaccine.
"Lucky me, huh?" said Anderson, 53, as medical staff clapped and he grinned behind a cloth face mask. The shot marked the first vaccination of a Minnesota inmate — and a possible turning point in the fight against COVID-19 after a difficult nine months behind bars.
"I just want some normalcy back," said Anderson, who was paralyzed by an errant bullet 28 years ago and is serving five years at the Faribault prison for a drug and firearm conviction. "I want to protect myself and everyone else."
As the highest priority group, front-line health care workers and nursing home residents are up for the first wave of shots. But the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) also allocated around 400 doses of the vaccine to treat the state's highest-risk prisoners.
Corrections and health officials agreed that specialized units at Faribault, Shakopee and Oak Park Heights serving elderly inmates and those with underlying health conditions mimic operations at long-term care and assisted-living facilities and should be treated as such.
"They met the same criteria," said MDH infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann, noting the state bears a responsibility for prisoners' welfare. "We needed to be looking out for their health, just like we're looking out for our other vulnerable adults in Minnesota."
The vaccines represent a fraction of MDH's general allotment earmarked for congregant care, a pool that's already immunized 7,200 people.
"These 400 doses do not mean someone in another setting won't get a vaccine," Ehresmann said.
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell announced the vaccine rollout in a departmentwide memo last week, describing the step as "a glimmer of hope" toward a COVID-free future.
Schnell, who faced some internal pushback about the decision to inoculate certain inmates ahead of correctional staff, emphasized that priority was based solely on medical risk factors, not what crime a person may have committed.
"It's not our place to judge on that," he said in interview with the Star Tribune. "Our job, at this stage in the game, is to begin distribution."
Corrections officers are expected to qualify for the vaccine during the next round targeted toward essential employees, such as schoolteachers, grocery workers and police, fire and postal staff. However, corrections officers who regularly work inside high-risk units may benefit from extra doses left after inmate shots are distributed.
It's not yet clear how long it will take for vaccines to trickle down to the broader prison population.
Neither inmates nor staff are required to get the shot, but it is highly encouraged. The agency recently launched an internal marketing campaign with posters and ads depicting smiling inmates and staff, proudly captioned: "I'm taking the vaccine. Who's with me?"
In separate notes to employees and those incarcerated, Schnell cast widespread distribution of the vaccine as the fastest way to end lockdowns and regain privileges.
"Everybody has had enough," said Laura Westphal, associate warden of Faribault prison. The stress of not seeing relatives for nearly a year has taken a toll on morale, she said, and makes the men restless. Some have gotten creative to pass the time.
In one wing, where COVID-positive cells are marked with red tags, inmates venture out in shifts, some running up and down the stairs to get exercise.
Most prisons have remained on semipermanent lockdown since March, prohibiting visitors, restricting inmate movements and disrupting educational programming to fight the virus' spread.
But outbreaks still flared, jumping between the aging facilities, where social distancing is virtually impossible and inmates suffer from disproportionately high rates of chronic illness.
The spike in positivity rates prompted intense criticism from criminal justice advocates and relatives of the incarcerated, some of whom accused Schnell of allowing the virus to spread so prisoners would eventually achieve "herd immunity."
Although he balked at the assertion, some facilities have reached infection rates so high that it could become a reality. At Faribault, the state's largest detention center, at least 1,067 of 1,700 inmates — or 62% — have contracted COVID and five have since died. The virus has been particularly rampant at the prison in Stillwater, where about 75% of the overall population has tested positive, as well as hundreds of staff members.
Corrections officials attribute many of the transmissions to the high number of asymptomatic staff and inmates, as well as the geriatric Stillwater heating system, which reduced outside airflow after temperatures plummeted in October. But the explanation hasn't prevented a class-action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which is accusing the agency of mismanaging the crisis.
Last month, Ramsey County District Judge Sara Grewing blasted the prison system for its handling of the pandemic, noting that Minnesota ranked sixth in the nation for prison infection rates per capita, and that the prison rate was more than six times higher than the state's infection rate outside the prison system. (Minnesota has since fallen to seventh, based on data calculated by the Associated Press and Marshall Project).
That case is pending.
On Monday, Ann Blanchard smiled as three medically vulnerable men lined up to get their vaccine in the Faribault prison medical ward. She knows some won't understand why inmates might get the shot before their own aging parents.
"Mom and Dad have the ability to stay home. They get their groceries brought in; they don't have to interact with people they don't feel safe interacting with," said Blanchard, director of clinical operations at Faribault. "These guys don't have the same privilege; they can't choose to isolate or not be exposed. So I think we owe them a level of protection."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.