Nearly 3,300 inmates in 4 U.S. state prisons test positive for coronavirus – 96% symptom-free


REUTERS: When the first cases of the new coronavirus surfaced in Ohio prisons, the director in charge seemed to be fighting a ghost.

“We weren’t always able to determine where all the cases were coming from,” said Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. As the virus spread, they began mass testing.

They started with the Marion Correctional Institution, which houses 2,500 inmates 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 positive tests, almost 95% had no symptoms.

“It was very surprising,” said Chambers-Smith, who oversees the state’s 28 correctional facilities.

While mass screening for coronaviruses is growing in prisons, a large number of prisoners have no symptoms.

In four state prison systems – Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia – 96 percent of the 3,277 inmates 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 symptom results.

The figures are the latest evidence to suggest that asymptomatic people – contagious but not physically ill – may be the source of the spread of the virus, not only in state prisons that house 1.3 million detainees across the country. , but also in communities around the world.

The numbers also reinforce the question of whether screening for suspected infected people actually captures the spread of the virus.

“This adds to the understanding that we have a serious undercoverage of cases in the United States,” said Dr. Leana Wen, associate associate professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University, said about the results from Reuters.

“The number of cases is probably much, much higher than what we know today due to the lack of testing and surveillance. “

Some people diagnosed as asymptomatic in the coronavirus screening test may, however, develop symptoms later, the researchers said.

The United States has more people behind bars than any other country, a total prison population of nearly 2.3 million in 2017 – almost half of which are in state prisons. Smaller numbers are locked up in federal and local prisons, which generally detain people for relatively short periods while awaiting trial.

The state prison systems of Michigan, Tennessee and California have also started mass testing – testing large numbers of prisoners for coronavirus infections even if they show no signs of disease – but have failed not provided specific counts of asymptomatic prisoners.

Tennessee said the majority of its positive cases had no symptoms. In Michigan, state officials said that “a good number” of the 620 inmates who tested positive for the coronavirus were asymptomatic. The state prison system in California would not release the number of asymptomatic prisoners.

Each state manages several penal establishments. Ohio, for example, has 49,000 prisoners in 28 facilities.

A total of 3,837 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus in 15 of these facilities. But the state has yet to provide symptom results for 1,809 of them and has not identified the total number of tests performed throughout the prison system.

Arkansas and Tennessee have also taken a targeted approach by conducting mass tests at several of their facilities. Michigan, North Carolina, California and Virginia started with one installation each.

Most state prisons have not provided the age or other demographic details of those who tested positive for the coronavirus, which killed 197,872 people worldwide, including 51,791 in the United States .


Reuters has investigated all 50 state prison systems. Of the 30 respondents, most test only those inmates who show symptoms, suggesting that they could greatly underestimate the number of people infected with the coronavirus.

Florida and Texas, which have larger inmate populations than Ohio, 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 epidemic in the United States, has reported 269 positive cases among 51,000 inmates. All three states only test symptomatic prisoners.

“Prison agencies certainly underestimate the number of COVID cases among those incarcerated,” said Michele Deitch, correctional specialist and lecturer at the University of Texas.

“Just as experts tell us in our free world communities, the only way to get ahead of this epidemic is to do mass testing.”

Florida and Texas prison officials said they followed guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state health officials when testing only inmates with symptoms of the virus.

The New York Department of Corrections has stated that its policy of testing only inmates with symptoms “mirrors testing procedures for the general public.”

Tennessee took an aggressive approach after a dozen inmates tested positive at the Bledsoe County Correctional Center in the city of Pikeville last week.

The state correctional department tested 3,503 inmates in Bledsoe, northwest of the correctional complex and the Turney Center industrial complex.

As of Friday, 651 were positive and most were asymptomatic, the department said.

“This is what makes the pandemic more difficult to manage,” said Marc Stern, former medical director of the Washington State Department of Corrections and a faculty member of the University of Washington. “There are a lot of people who are asymptomatic. “

After a recent outbreak of cases at the Neuse correctional facility in Goldsboro, North Carolina, state correctional officials tested the 723 detainees last week.

Of the 444 people infected with the virus, 98% were asymptomatic, the state’s public security department said. One inmate died in prison.

Likewise, mass tests in two Arkansas prisons – the Cummins unit in the town of Grady and the state capital Little Rock Community Correctional Center – found 751 infected inmates, almost all of whom were asymptomatic, said the state correctional service. He did not provide the total number of detainees tested.

Arkansas prisons have previously faced outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as scabies and chickenpox, but these episodes were easier to manage because inmates exhibited overt symptoms, said the spokesperson for the Department of Arkansas corrections, Dina Tyler.

“But with this virus, you have no idea because many are asymptomatic. It’s very difficult to contain, “she said.


The Lakeland, Michigan correctional center is home to some of the state’s oldest and weakest prisoners. When cases of coronavirus increased, the prison saw an increase in infections and deaths. As of April 23, nine Lakeland inmates have died from COVID-19, accounting for one-third of deaths in 29 Michigan state prisons.

According to state data, almost half of the 1,400 Lakeland detainees suffer from chronic underlying health conditions. 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 400 inmates from 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 refused to reveal how many were asymptomatic.

“We know that mass testing will drive up our numbers and make us look bad,” said Michigan State of Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz.

“But I don’t think there is another prison system in the country that is not very numerous. They may not test as rigorously as we do. “

All of the detainees tested are quarantined in their rooms or units pending the results of the tests, which usually return during the day, he said. “The 24-hour delay is crucial,” because once an inmate is negative, he can return to the general population, he said.

In the seven state prison systems carrying out mass tests, 49 detainees died.

As the coronavirus spreads behind bars, rights groups and public defenders say they fear more will die and have pushed for the release of non-violent, high-risk medical detainees. While thousands of people have been released, overcrowding, often unsanitary, has raised concerns that prisons and prisons may become vectors of the disease.

“They’re worse than landlocked cruise ships,” said Stern, the correctional expert, referring to stranded cruise ships that have been overwhelmed by coronavirus infections.

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