Coronavirus pandemic: US prisons become breeding grounds as asymptomatic cases rise
In 4 US state prisons, nearly 3,300 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus - 96% without symptoms. The rising numbers of coronavirus cases in America's prisons are the latest evidence to suggest that asymptomatic people may be driving the spread of the virus.
In the US, prison and jail populations are becoming a breeding ground for the novel coronavirus, sickening thousands of inmates as well as the staff that work in the facilities. The pandemic has so far killed more than 53,000 people in the country.
Authorities say that while measures have been put in place to try and stop the spread COVID-19, it is difficult to contain such a contagious disease in settings where people are forced to live, work and eat in close quarters.
Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, says that when the first cases of the coronavirus surfaced in Ohio’s prisons, she felt like she was fighting a ghost. “We weren’t always able to pinpoint where all the cases were coming from,” said Chambers-Smith. As the virus spread, they began mass testing.
They started with the Marion Correctional Institution, which houses 2,500 prisoners in north central Ohio, many of them older with pre-existing health conditions.
After testing 2,300 inmates for the coronavirus, they were shocked. Of the 2,028 who tested positive, close to 95% had no symptoms. “It was very surprising,” said Chambers-Smith, who oversees the state’s 28 correctional facilities.
LARGE NUMBER OF INMATES SHOW NO SYMPTOMS
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, Reuters reported. 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 US,” said Dr Leana Wen, adjunct associate professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University.
Some people diagnosed as asymptomatic when tested for the coronavirus, however, may go on to develop symptoms later, according to researchers.
The US has more people behind bars than any other nation, a total incarcerated population of nearly 2.3 million as of 2017 -- nearly half of which is in state prisons. Smaller numbers are locked in federal prisons and local jails, which typically hold people for relatively short periods as they await trial.
State prison systems in Michigan, Tennessee and California have also begun mass testing -- checking for coronavirus infections in large numbers of inmates even if they show no sign of illness -- but have not provided specific counts of asymptomatic prisoners.
Tennessee said a majority of its positive cases didn’t show symptoms. In Michigan, state authorities said "a good number" of the 620 prisoners who tested positive for the coronavirus were asymptomatic. California’s state prison system would not release counts of asymptomatic prisoners.
Each state manages multiple prison facilities. Ohio, for instance, has 49,000 prisoners in 28 facilities. A total 3,837 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus in 15 of those facilities. But the state has not yet provided results on symptoms for 1,809 of them and did not identify the total number of tests conducted across the prison system.
Arkansas and Tennessee have also taken a targeted approach by conducting mass testing in several of their facilities. Michigan, North Carolina, California and Virginia have started with one facility each.
Most state prisons did not provide the age or other demographic details of those who tested positive for the coronavirus, which has killed more than 200,000 people globally.
All 50 state prison systems were surveyed and 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, reported Reuters.
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 epicentre of the US 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.”
Prison officials in Florida and Texas said they were following guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention along with state health officials when testing only inmates showing symptoms of the virus. New York’s Department of Corrections said its policy of only testing prisoners who show symptoms was “reflective of testing procedures in the general public.”
Tennessee took an aggressive approach after a dozen inmates tested positive at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in the city of Pikeville last week. The state's Department of Correction has tested 3,503 prisoners at Bledsoe, the Northwest Correctional Complex and the Turney Center Industrial Complex.
As of Friday, 651 were positive, and most of them were asymptomatic, the department said.
After a recent spike in cases at the Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, North Carolina, state correctional officials tested all 723 prisoners last week. Of the 444 who were infected by the virus, 98% were asymptomatic, the state’s department of public safety said. One inmate has died at the prison.
Similarly, mass testing at two Arkansas prisons -- the Cummins Unit in the city of Grady and the Community Correction Center in the state capital Little Rock -- found 751 infected inmates, almost all of them asymptomatic, the state corrections department said.
‘24-HOUR TURNAROUND IS CRUCIAL’
Michigan’s Lakeland Correctional Facility houses some of the state’s oldest and most medically frail prisoners. When coronavirus cases surged, the prison saw a spike in infections and deaths. As of April 23, nine Lakeland inmates had died from COVID-19, accounting for a third of the deaths across Michigan’s 29 state prisons.
Nearly half of Lakeland’s 1,400 prisoners suffer from chronic underlying health conditions, according to state data. Many are in wheelchairs, and the minimum-security facility in southern Michigan has its own geriatric unit for its large elderly population.
On Tuesday, the prison tested all 400 inmates in the geriatric ward and plans to test the rest of the facility by the end of the week. Of the 971 tested so far, 642, or about 66%, were positive. A state official declined to disclose how many were asymptomatic.
As the coronavirus spreads behind bars, rights groups and public defenders say they fear more will succumb, and have pressed for the release of nonviolent older and medically high-risk inmates.