The Douglas County Health Department is working with Omaha judges and prosecutors on a plan to vaccinate judges, attorneys and other judicial system workers against COVID-19.
They are not among the priority groups currently slated to receive the very limited amount of vaccines being administered in Nebraska. But jail and some court officials in Omaha have been pressing for vaccinations so criminal trials and court hearings can resume.
“I have talked to district judges, county judges and also (Douglas County Attorney) Don Kleine, so we have a process in place where we are trying to address the judicial system at this time,” Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour told the Douglas County Board on Tuesday.
Most court proceedings in Omaha have been suspended because of COVID-19 risk. The resulting backlog of cases has, among other results, caused crowding at the Douglas County Jail while people accused of crimes await their day in court. The crowding has eased somewhat with the recent completion of renovation projects, the use of virtual court hearings and other efforts, but the jail population is close to capacity and running unusually high for this time of year, Douglas County Corrections Director Mike Myers told the board.
“Those charged with more serious, violent offense are often awaiting hearings which must be held in person,” Myers said. “There are a finite number of beds which can be used to house maximum security inmates, and as those cases continue to stack up, you will be faced with difficult choices in order to try to maintain the highest level of safety and security possible.”
He said judicial officials have “identified widespread use of the vaccines within the justice system as a linchpin for restoring their functions.”
“We continue to advocate for the justice system to receive vaccinations as soon as possible,” Myers said.
In its phased plan, the State of Nebraska is currently limiting vaccinations mainly to people 65 and over and certain other groups, such as law enforcement officers. Douglas County is mainly vaccinating people over 75 years old because they are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, but has begun including law enforcement and is about to start allotting about 10% of its doses — about 800 this week — to utility workers who come in contact with the public, Pour told the board.
County Board member Jim Cavanaugh pressed the health director for details on judicial system vaccinations.
“They are indicating that they will be in trial in March,” said Cavanaugh, an attorney whose wife works in the Douglas County Public Defender’s Office. “Is there a timeline that would get the criminal justice system — I mean we’re not talking thousands of people, we’re talking hundreds of people — vaccinations in order to allow trials and jury panels to sit in March?”