A lawsuit alleging Minnesota has failed to properly care for state prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic can move forward as a certified class-action, a Ramsey County judge ruled this week.

A group of incarcerated people across Minnesota's prison system filed the lawsuit last year. They allege that, as Minnesota responded to the spread of the virus, there has been a "blind spot" in the Department of Corrections and that state officials did not act in a coordinated manner to prevent the rapid spread inside its prisons.

The majority of those suing suffer from "serious health concerns" that put them at heightened risk from the virus, especially in the close quarters of prisons, according to court documents. The defendants are represented by the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the order allowing the lawsuit to proceed, Judge Sara Grewing ruled the lawsuit can also add Gov. Tim Walz, along with the Minnesota Department of Health and its commissioner, Jan Malcolm, as defendants. The lawsuit also names the Minnesota Department of Corrections and its commissioner, Paul Schnell.

Every person in the state's corrections system has been tested for the virus, according to state data. Out of more than 100,000 tests administered, fewer than 4,000 have been confirmed positive. Twelve prisoners have died from complications related to the virus, the data show.

By April 9, every incarcerated person in the state's facilities will have access to the vaccine, and the administration has been running a campaign to encourage people to take it, said department spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald.

"We look forward to presenting the court with the results of our continuing effort to get vaccines in the arms of our staff and the people incarcerated in the state's prisons," said Schnell. "Despite the challenges of COVID in custodial settings, Minnesota has been a national leader in the use of COVID testing to inform response protocols. As an agency, we have and will continue to follow the guidance of state and national health experts to mitigate the risks of COVID-19."

Dan Shulman, staff attorney for the Minnesota ACLU, said Grewing's decision affirms that the state has not done enough to protect people in prison from the virus.

"I certainly applaud the efforts to get everybody vaccinated," Shulman said. But the prisons should also do more to promote social distancing and mask wearing, and to educate people in prisons on the safety and benefits of the vaccine, he said.

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036