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April 25, 2020

Mass COVID infections thanks to mass incarceration ... but hoping it might lead to mass increase in understanding this virus

The Marshall Project is continuing to provide great COVID coverage, and its has two new pieces that spotlight the massive spread of the coronavirus among incarcerated individuals.  Here are the headlines and highlights:

From California to North Carolina, prisons that do aggressive testing are finding that infection is spreading quickly.  Take Ohio’s state prison system, which has two of the most serious outbreaks in the country. It has started mass testing of all staff and inmates at its most afflicted facilities.  Marion Correctional Institution, an hour north of Columbus, has reported four deaths, but has more than 2,000 prisoners and at least 160 staffers who tested positive for the virus.  At Pickaway Correctional Institution an hour away, at least nine prisoners have died, while more than 1,500 prisoners and 79 staffers have tested positive.

We now can see, through data collected by The Marshall Project, that thousands of prisoners have caught the illness, and the number of cases has grown more than threefold in the last week alone.  Thousands more workers, correctional officers and medical staff have been sickened.  And more than 140 people — most of them incarcerated — have died thus far.

It is hardly surprising that COVID spreads wildly in a prison setting where social distancing is impossible and effective hygiene is always challenging.  But I so badly want to hope that the fact that such large populations are now testing positive might enable us to gain a greater understanding of this devilish virus.  Encouragingly, this new USA Today article, headlined "Mass virus testing in state prisons reveals hidden asymptomatic infections; feds join effort," suggests it might:

But 39 inmates testing positive for the coronavirus at the Neuse state prison in Goldsboro, North Carolina, was still cause for alarm.  Of the more than 50 detention centers across the state, none had more infections at the time than Neuse, prompting officials to take the extraordinary step of testing all 700 prisoners at the medium security facility near Raleigh.

Within a week, infections had surged to 444.  Perhaps even more revealing: More than 90% of the newly diagnosed inmates displayed no symptoms, meaning that the deadly virus could have remained hidden had the state followed federal guidelines that largely reserve testing for people displaying common symptoms, such as fever and respiratory distress.  “We would never have known,” North Carolina Department of Public Safety spokesman John Bull said.

Even as vulnerable prison systems have ramped up scrutiny of inmates and staffers with broad quarantines and elaborate contact tracing investigations, increased testing is proving just as crucial in assessing the virus’ spread within detention systems as it is in the free world.  Mass testing at three state prisons in Ohio has yielded results similar to North Carolina's, with officials suggesting that the strategy and findings could have broad implications, not just for containing outbreaks in detention centers but in making larger decisions about when states should re-open for business and loosen social distancing restrictions.

I am so saddened that COVID has turned our prisons and jails into human petri dishes, and I am so troubled even thinking about incarcerated populations serving as some kind of experimental "control" group in continuing research.  Nevertheless, at a time where it seems we still know so little about COVID, I hope our public health experts and researchers can, in an ethically appropriate way, effectively use the new infection data coming out of our nation's many prisons to help increase our understanding of this virus in order to better prevent its spread and better treat those who contract it.

UPDATE: Here is also a lengthy Reuters piece, headlined "In four U.S. state prisons, nearly 3,300 inmates test positive for coronavirus -- 96% without symptoms," which includes these passages:

As mass coronavirus testing expands in prisons, large numbers of inmates are showing no symptoms. In four state prison systems — Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia — 96% of 3,277 inmates who tested positive for the coronavirus were asymptomatic, according to interviews with officials and records reviewed by Reuters. That’s out of 4,693 tests that included results on symptoms.

The numbers are the latest evidence to suggest that people who are asymptomatic — contagious but not physically sick — may be driving the spread of the virus, not only in state prisons that house 1.3 million inmates across the country, but also in communities across the globe. The figures also reinforce questions over whether testing of just people suspected of being infected is actually capturing the spread of the virus. “It adds to the understanding that we have a severe undercount of cases in the U.S.,” said Dr. Leana Wen, adjunct associate professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University, said of the Reuters findings. “The case count is likely much, much higher than we currently know because of the lack of testing and surveillance.”...

Reuters surveyed all 50 state prison systems. Of the 30 that responded, most are only testing inmates who show symptoms, suggesting they could be vastly undercounting the number infected by the coronavirus.

Florida and Texas, whose inmate populations are bigger than Ohio’s, report a combined total of just 931 cases — far fewer than the 3,837 inmates who tested positive in Ohio. New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, has reported 269 positive cases among 51,000 inmates. All three states are testing only symptomatic prisoners.

“Prison agencies are almost certainly vastly undercounting the number of COVID cases among incarcerated persons,” said Michele Deitch, a corrections specialist and senior lecturer at the University of Texas. “Just as the experts are telling us in our free-world communities, the only way to get ahead of this outbreak is through mass testing.”...

“We know mass testing is going to make our numbers spike and might make us look bad,” said Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections. “But I don’t think there’s another prison system in the country that doesn’t have large numbers. They just might not be testing as rigorously as we are.”

April 25, 2020 at 01:20 PM | Permalink


Virginia BOP needs to get on board! Its like theyre ducking getting tested!

Posted by: Marcie Jennings | Apr 26, 2020 10:56:36 AM

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