Pentagon pauses plan to offer Covid vaccine to Guantánamo Bay prisoners
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon announced Saturday they would pause their plan to offer coronavirus vaccinations to detainees at Guantánamo Bay, reversing course just days after they said that the vaccine would be administered to those that wanted it.
“No Guantanamo detainees have been vaccinated. We’re pausing the plan to move forward, as we review force protection protocols. We remain committed to our obligations to keep our troops safe,” said John Kirby, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, in a tweet.
Kirby’s statement came just over an hour after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted that President Joe Biden “told us he would have a plan to defeat the virus on day 1. He just never told us that it would be to give the vaccine to terrorists before most Americans.”
The naval base in Cuba has 6,000 residents, including 1,500 U.S. troops who work at the prison, where 40 prisoners remain. By law, prisoners must receive all of their health care on the base and there is only one community hospital to service the area.
Some public health experts and criminal justice advocates have argued that incarcerated people should be high on the priority list to receive the vaccine, as many are detained in tight quarters and are in close contact with prison staff, creating ripe conditions for a widespread Covid-19 breakout.
It is not known how many people at Guantánamo have been infected with Covid-19. The Pentagon in March 2020 prohibited commanders from publicly reporting new coronavirus cases among their personnel as cases surged worldwide.
The pandemic has delayed military commission proceedings at Guantánamo, including the joint death-penalty trial for the men accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, which was initially scheduled to begin Jan. 11, 2021.
Guantánamo Bay has housed hundreds of wartime prisoners since the 9/11 attacks and lawmakers for years have struggled to close the prison, which is expensive to run and has been a source of questions about human rights violations. President Joe Biden said during his campaign that he supported closing the detention center, but offered no concrete timetable or commitment to doing so.
A group of former prisoners who at one point were detained at Guantánamo Bay penned a letter to Biden in the New York Review of Books on Friday urging him to close down the facility.
“President Bush opened it. President Obama promised to close it, but failed to do so. President Trump promised to keep it open. It is now your turn to shape your legacy with regards to Guantánamo,” they wrote.