National prison struggle with Covid-19

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© Scott G. Winterton / Associated Press

Eight months after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, prisons across the country are still grappling with how best to control a virus that is escalating across the country.

The coronavirus continued to spread widely in detention centers, although authorities have taken a series of measures to contain it. Prisons have released thousands of inmates to reduce overcrowding, stepped up health checks among visitors, and adopted U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols, such as wearing masks for inmates and staff.

The number of infections within states and the country’s federal prison systems has fluctuated over the past six months, largely reflecting the nationwide spread. Between April and June, prisons recorded an average of 17,700 new cases per month. That climbed to over 30,000 new infections per month in July and August, before dropping slightly in September to 25,031 and 26,290 in October, according to the Covid Prison Project, a group of interdisciplinary public health scientists from universities across the country. that follow. the virus has spread through correctional facilities.

As of mid-November, the US prison system has already registered more than 20,000 cases, putting it on track for the highest number of monthly cases since the start of the pandemic. Reporting standards vary by institution and locality, which means that the exact number of infections could be higher.

Health experts fear that Covid-19, combined with flu season, will soon overwhelm prison health resources.

“The prisons are going to be continually tested, with multiple introductions of Covid, until we get this thing under control,” said Zinzi Bailey, a social epidemiologist at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami.

Limiting these introductions, or the way a virus enters an enclosed environment like a prison, is a priority for prison officials. Court documents show that the transfer of 121 inmates may have been the source of a severe outbreak over the summer at San Quentin State Prison in California, in which about 75 percent of inmates have caught the virus.

In August, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation required all prisoners transferred between institutions to undergo a quarantine. Some non-case prisons run random inmate testing and mandatory testing of all staff every two weeks. In facilities where the number of cases is increasing, staff are tested weekly and movement between housing units is limited as much as possible.

A recent outbreak at Utah State Prison in Draper was reportedly caused by a visiting medical professional, according to a prison official.

“We don’t have the ability to send everyone home,” said Mike Haddon, executive director of the Utah Corrections Department.

At the start of the pandemic, to reduce the risk, some prison systems sent home low-level offenders and elderly or sick inmates. California has released more than 21,000 people, resulting in the lowest prison population in decades, spokeswoman Dana Simas said.

But not all of the elderly and sick patients were released. Gloria Taylor, who is serving a life sentence for drug offenses at Homestead Correctional Facility in Florida, was hospitalized with Covid-19 in April. Her hospital roommate, also detained, eventually died, Ms Taylor said.

Ms Taylor’s request for medical parole was denied by the Florida Corrections Department in May.

Ms Taylor’s attorney, MiAngel Cody, fears her 64-year-old client, who has HIV, may be re-infected. Ms. Cody is the founder of the Decarceration Collective, a law firm funded in part by Kim Kardashian West dedicated to the defense of federal inmates serving life sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

“There’s nothing in place to keep her safe,” Ms. Cody said of Ms. Taylor.

The Florida Department of Corrections said it follows all CDC security guidelines for correctional facilities.

Even with mitigation measures in place, more than 212,000 inmates in the United States have contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic, according to the Covid Prison Project, which compiles data from the prison systems in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and US Immigration and Customs, as well as a number of prisons.

Inmates have been infected at a rate more than four times that of the general population, according to data from the Covid Prison Project.

Despite this, the case-fatality ratio, or the percentage of fatal coronavirus cases, is lower among inmates than in the general population. A total of 1,491 inmates have died since the start of the pandemic, bringing the case fatality rate to around 0.7%. This figure is 2.1% for the United States as a whole.

Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, assistant professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and co-founder of the Covid Prison Project, said this was in part due to demographics. Although the prison population is aging, it is generally younger than the general population.

However, in the midst of this latest surge, said Dr Bailey of the University of Miami, hospitalizations and deaths are likely to increase, given the prevalence of comorbidities such as hypertension or diabetes among inmates. Covid-19 poses more risks for people with chronic illnesses.

Dr Bailey said prisons should take broader measures to reduce overcrowding. Avoiding jailing those who are unable to pay a cash bond, especially those with co-morbidities, would also help mitigate the spread, she said.

But outbreaks continue to plague other parts of the national system, including two jails in upstate New York in mid-October. In Montana, the state National Guard was deployed last month to help with an outbreak in the prison system.

In Utah, which has so far reported 952 infections at Draper Prison, Mr Haddon said the state has been fortunate enough to avert an outbreak so far.

“We knew our number would end up being called,” he said.

Write to Talal Ansari at [email protected]

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