Mass prison testing reveals COVID-19 spike

FOX Files
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BONNE TERRE, Mo. – There’s a sudden coronavirus spike in Missouri prisons that is increasing by the day. The implications reach beyond simply health concerns.

Missouri prisons have been like islands, isolated since the pandemic began more than three months ago.

In normal times, prisoners are transferred for safety reasons or to get job training to prepare for their release. That’s all been frozen to stop the spread of COVID-19.

We’ve learned a new mass testing effort by the Missouri Department of Corrections has revealed dozens of positive COVID-19 cases in at least two prisons.

On June 19, the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (ERDCC) in Bonne Terre identified 21 COVID-19 positive cases.

By Monday June 22, the number had increased to 36 COVID-19 positive cases. That number could still rise by tomorrow because the Bonne Terre prison is still waiting on more pending results.

The Department of Corrections emphasizes this reported spike in positives is the result of “new sentinel testing,” also known as “mass testing” and that these new numbers involve prison workers and inmates who are not feeling coronavirus symptoms.

DOC adds that some prisons that have been recently mass tested are showing no positives – such as South Central Correctional in Licking, Algoa in Jefferson City, and Chillicothe Correctional.

On the other end of the spectrum – Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston had 47 positive cases. A DOC rep said they were “nearly all in one housing unit” and that “most of those have recovered.”

Prisons that have successfully cleared testing may soon return to visitations and transfers.

However, some inmates like Everett Washington are still stuck. He told me by phone in May about his struggle getting transitional services. He said those services will “prepare me for the free world. It will prepare me – anger management, life skill classes, mental health classes, all these things that we need before we get out.”

He’s still stuck as his possible winter release date draws closer. He’s in Potosi, where mass testing has yet to begin.

Here’s more from the Missouri Department of corrections on testing, how it’s handling positive cases, and what’s being done to get back to normal:

The reason more COVID-19 cases are being identified is that we’ve begun sentinel testing, or mass testing, at all facilities. This process helps us find asymptotic positives. Before late May, we were testing only people who had symptoms or who might have been exposed to the virus, in accordance with CDC guidelines. Now that the state ha more testing supplies, we are testing all offenders on intake and before release, and we’re in the process of completing sentinel testing of all offenders and all staff in all prisons.

Because we shut down visiting, regular transfers, work release, and volunteer programs in all prisons very early in the pandemic, some facilities have remained fairly isolated from the larger community. Mass testing at these facilities has revealed no positives among the thousands of staff and offenders living or working there. South Central Correctional Center, Algoa Correctional Center, and Chillicothe Correctional Center, for example, have no positives among any staff or offenders.

We have continued to take in offenders from county jails, from other states, and through revocations from probation and parole during this public health crisis. New offenders enter the system through our reception and diagnostic centers (such as ERDCC) in Bonne Terre, Fulton, Vandalia, and St. Joseph. Although all incoming offenders have been screened for exposure to COVID-19 and for symptoms of the virus, as well as other medical conditions, since the pandemic began, intake testing and mass testing began more recently, in late May and early June, when more testing supplies became available. This newer testing strategy has identified asymptomatic carriers of the virus who were not identified in screening.

Since March, the department has had a viral containment plan in place to help reduce the risk of the virus entering prisons and to respond quickly if it does. Offenders interact only with residents of their own housing units – moving in small groups to dining halls, recreation areas, etc., together — and avoid contact with residents of other housing units. Group sizes are limited, and mass gatherings have stopped. All areas are sanitized after use by each group. All staff are screened, with temperature checks, before entering a facility.

In addition, every facility identified isolation units to house infected offenders. Offenders who test positive are isolated until they test negative. Staff who test positive are sent home on leave and must test negative twice before returning to work. All staff who have close contact with a positive are sent home for two weeks of quarantine. Everyone entering a quarantine unit, isolation unit, or other area in which they come into contact with the virus is required to wear personal protective equipment.

Here are some other steps we’ve taken to protect staff and residents:

Karen Pojmann, Missouri Department of Corrections spokesperson

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