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How Prisons Across the Globe Are Dealing With Coronavirus Outbreaks

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  • Coronavirus outbreaks in prisons are a growing threat that could entirely overwhelm the healthcare system and seriously harm efforts to flatten the epidemic curve.
  • Inmates are a high-risk group for an outbreak because they live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, have notoriously bad medical care, and a high percentage of them are old or have pre-existing conditions.
  • Workers and visitors are in-and-out of prisons and similar detention facilities frequently, which also increases the risk of spread.
  • In response, some states and countries are releasing prisoners to pre-empt the spread, while prison breaks over coronavirus fears and anger continue to occur in other places.

Incarceration and the Coronavirus

With the influx of constant news about the coronavirus, there is a huge population of people who are being left out of most mainstream conversations— prisoners.

But here’s the thing: it is incredibly important to include prisoners in discussions about coronavirus and public health for a number of reasons.

This is especially true for the U.S., which has the highest incarceration rates in world by far, holding around 2.3 million people in prisons, jails, psychiatric hospitals, immigration detention centers, and other similar facilities.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, even the states with the lowest incarceration rates still lock up more people than nearly every other country in the world.

This is not just a human rights and criminal justice reform issue, but a public health issue as well.

Incarceration facilities are exceptionally high risk when it comes to the spread of the coronavirus. Just think about it: the vast majority of incarcerated people can not social distance. In U.S. prisons, multiple people share cells, bathrooms, eating areas, and laundry facilities.

On top of that, most inmates live in highly unsanitary conditions. Oftentimes toilets do not have lids and double as sinks where people wash their hands and brush their teeth. In some places, soap might only be available for purchase at the commissary.

That in itself discourages proper hygiene, and it is exacerbated by the fact that most prisons do not allow hand sanitizer because of its alcohol content.

These circumstances are made worse by a number of other structural issues. Prisoners are notoriously underserved medically. In many places, basic medical care is often delayed or denied.

Those factors make it even more likely that there could be a situation in which the virus is either rapidly spreading undetected or brushed off as the flu.

Further complicating matters is the fact that a large percentage of prisoners are already considered at-risk populations. 

According to the New York Times, around 40% of incarcerated people suffer from chronic health conditions — meaning some of them are immunocompromised — and there are about 274,000 people that are 50 or older in state and federal prisons.

Risk to the Curve & Public Health

Another major concern with the coronavirus and prisons is the high potential for spillover to the communities outside of facilities if there were to be an outbreak.

At most prisons, there are countless people going in and out everyday including employees, health care workers, vendors, visitors, educators and more. In some towns, the local jail or prison is a major employer.

Even beyond that, the jail population itself is exceedingly transitory: more than half of the people in jails are only in there for two or three days.

There is also significant overlap between incarcerated and homeless populations. 

“Someone released from a jail, then, could infect people in a homeless shelter, or vice versa, causing an outbreak that could bounce back and forth between both places, infecting far more people than would be in a jail or homeless shelter alone,” said Tyler Winkelman, a doctor and researcher at the University of Minnesota who focuses on health care and criminal justice.

As a result, an outbreak in a prison or similar facility poses a serious threat to public health and efforts to fight the coronavirus.

“Coronavirus in these settings will dramatically increase the epidemic curve, not flatten it, and disproportionately for people of color,” said Dr. Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer of the New York City jail system.

Failure to flatten the curve could prolong the need for everyone to practice social distancing and isolation.

Previous coverage on flattening the curve

Examples in States & Other Countries

Unfortunately, when it comes to coronavirus outbreaks in prisons, most experts believe it is a matter of when not if— but there is still time to prepare. 

Most experts suggest pretty basic solutions, like making hand washing and other good hygiene practices easier and more accessible. Others also recommend canceling activities and non-medical visits, especially near areas that already have an outbreak.

Some experts also point to recent guidance by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. In addition to increased screenings, the guidance also recommends some more unconventional possibilities, like releasing some inmates either permanently or temporarily and asking police to consider scaling down arrests for certain crimes to avoid adding more people to the mix.  

There are already some places that are taking precautions. Last week, the Federal Department of Correction announced visits from family, friends, and attorneys will be stopped in all 122 federal correctional facilities in the U.S.

After an employee at a correctional facility in Pennsylvania tested positive, 34 inmates and staffers were quarantined. 

The New York City Department of Correction (NYCDOC) is screening people for flu-like symptoms and looking at other measures. Those practices will likely be increased, as it was reported Monday that a NYCDOC investigator died from the coronavirus.

Some places have even started releasing inmates. Hundreds of inmates were released from a county jail in Ohio over the weekend.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department also announced Monday that it is also releasing some inmates as well as cutting down on how many people it puts in custody.

Iran, which has the third-highest number of confirmed cases after China and Italy, has temporarily released a total of 85,000 prisoners since last week.

There is pressure in other countries too. Last week, Italy experienced several jailbreaks, specifically in Milan, after prisoners rioted over concerns that they were not being properly cared for amid the outbreak.

According to reports, 16 prisoners were able to break free and are still at large.

In Brazil, hundreds of prisoners escaped from four different prisons on Monday, reportedly over fears of coronavirus and anger over Easter holidays and visits being canceled.

As more countries consider their options, experts hope that the U.S. will learn from the actions they take.

“We can learn what works in terms of mitigation from other countries who have seen spikes in coronavirus already,” said Winkelman. “But none of those countries have the level of incarceration that we have in the United States.”

See what others are saying: (Vox) (The New York Times) (CNN)

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Mother and Boyfriend Charged After Abandoning 3 Children in Apartment With Sibling’s Remains

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Authorities said the malnourished children had been living in the unit without their parents for months.


Abandoned Children Discovered in Houston

Police in Texas arrested a mother and her boyfriend on Tuesday after finding the woman’s three children abandoned in an apartment unit with the remains of their sibling.

Authorities found the 7-, 10-, and 15-year-old boys on Sunday when the teen called police to report that his brother had been dead for a year and that his body was in the unit.

When authorities arrived at the scene, they found the children living in “deplorable conditions.” Police also found the skeletal remains of an 8-year-old, who they emphasized had been decomposing for an extended period of time.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the boys were fending for each other, with the eldest doing his best to care for the younger ones. According to the teen, his parents hadn’t been living in the apartment with them for months.

Gonzales called it one of the most shocking cases he had ever seen in all his years in law enforcement, and many are now asking how these kids could have been suffering for so long without anyone ever noticing.

Signs That Went Unnoticed

The Daily Beast reported that the kids hadn’t been attending school since May 2020, claiming that the school even conducted an unsuccessful home visit in September of that year.

On top of that, the children had been without power for several weeks, with one neighbor telling local reporters that the teen would often charge his phone at her place.

Another neighbor, Erica Chapman, said she had once found the teen sleeping on a playground slide, so she gave him some food and drinks.

I asked him if he was hungry. He said, ‘Yeah,’ and I brought him out some food and some drinks,” Chapman told KHOU.

She said he “wouldn’t talk about his parents,” and she didn’t push because she wanted him to feel safe coming to her if he needed food. Chapman added that she would drop off food at the apartment sometimes but said it was hard to tell what was going on inside.

Police also described a foul odor coming from the unit, which a different neighbor said she complained to management about more than once. That woman claimed the smell was so vile, she could not turn on her air conditioning.

Dianne Davis, who lived in the complex for two years, told The Houston Chronicle that the building manager performs regular inspections on the units, with the most recent one happening last week.

“How come they couldn’t detect this?” Davis told the paper. “How could that not have been found?”

Mother and Boyfriend Face Charges

According to Child Protective Services (CPS), the agency does have a history with the family, but there was no active investigation at the time the kids were discovered.

After they were found, the boys were treated at a hospital and placed with CPS while the agency seeks emergency custody of them.

At the hospital, doctors discovered fractures in the 7-year-old face and said two of the three boys were malnourished. Meanwhile, the medical examiner’s office said the deceased child suffered multiple blunt force injuries and ruled his death a homicide.

Police located the mother, 35-year-old Gloria Williams, and her boyfriend, 31-year-old Brian Coulter, on Sunday. They were interviewed and initially released without charges.

ABC13 reported that the teen texted his mother, who lived just 15 minutes, before calling the police.

On Tuesday, the couple was finally arrested while allegedly reading articles about themselves at a library. Williams, faces multiple charges, including injury to a child by omission and tampering with evidence involving a human corpse.

Meanwhile, Coulter was charged with murder over the death of the child, though both he and Williams are expected to face more charges as investigators continue to unpack the details of this case.

See what others are saying: (The Houston Chronicle) (The Daily Beast) (The Washington Post)

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Man Spent COVID Relief Loan on $58,000 Pokemon Card, Feds Say

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The man is facing a wire fraud charge, which carries a max sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison, along with a $250,000 fine.


COVID Relief Funds Used on Pokemon Card

Authorities have accused a man in Georgia of misusing COVID-19 relief funds, claiming that he spent $57,789 on a single Pokemon card.

Prosecutors said Vinath Oudomsine made false statements about the gross revenue his business earns and the number of workers he employs when he applied for aid authorized under the CARES Act.

On his July 2020 application, Oudomsine allegedly claimed he had 10 employees and 12-month gross revenues of $235,000.

The following month, he was given about $85,000 from the Small Business Administration (SBA), which means he spent nearly all of the money on the rare card.

Authorities have given few details about the specific card purchased, though they have said Oudomsine was charged with wire fraud and is expected to appear in court on Thursday.

The charge carries a max sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison, along with a $250,000 fine.

Misuse of COVID Relief Funds

Oudomsine is far from the first person to face charges for fraud related to small business loans issued amid the pandemic. Others who received relief funds have been accused of spending the money on Lamborghinis, nights at strip clubs, and even an alpaca farm, among other purchases.

In fact, the first person to be charged with fraudulently seeking a pandemic relief loan was recently sentenced to 56 months in prison following a nationwide search after the man faked his own death.

According to The Washington Post, a federal watchdog said this month that the SBA overpaid $4.5 billion in grants to self-employed people and that “no system of controls was in place to flag applications with flawed or illogical information.”

On top of that, the SBA inspector general determined earlier this year that the agency rushed to send out billions of dollars in loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) “at the expense of controls” that could have blocked inappropriate aid.

In a statement on Sunday, the agency said that under the Biden administration, it has worked with Congress and the inspector general to add antifraud measures. Meanwhile, defenders of pandemic relief programs have argued that flagged loans and grants represent only a small fraction of the distributed aid that has been critical to small businesses and their pandemic recovery.

See what others are saying: (NPR)(USA Today)(The Washington Post)

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FDA Authorizes Moderna and J&J COVID Vaccine Boosters, Approves Mix-and-Match Doses

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The approval will allow at-risk Americans who received Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to get any booster six months after their initial series and all Johnson & Johnson recipients 18 and older to do the same two months after their single-shot dose.


New FDA Authorization

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday authorized boosters shots of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines and approved a mix-and-match strategy that will allow people who got one company’s shot to get a booster from a different maker.

The decision paves the way for millions of more at-risk Americans to get extra protection, and not just certain Pfizer recipients as previously approved by the FDA.

Under the authorization, people who received Moderna or Pfizer can get any one of the three booster shots six months after completing their initial series if they are 65 and older, at high risk of severe COVID, or face increased exposure because of their work.

Meanwhile, all J&J recipients 18 and older can get any of the approved vaccines two months after they received the one-shot jab.

Hazy Recommendations, For Now

Notably, the FDA did not recommend a certain combination of vaccines, nor did the agency say whether or not it would be more effective for people to stick with their original vaccine maker for their booster.

The new authorizations draw on a study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which found that there are no safety concerns with mixing boosters and that vaccine combinations were at least as effective in stimulating antibodies as matched vaccines.

In the case of J&J recipients, the NIH found that people actually had a higher boost from mixing either Moderna or Pfizer boosters.

However, some of the scientists who worked on the study said it should not be used to recommend one combination over another because the research was limited.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which determines vaccine recommendations, could issue more guidance on when and whether people should switch vaccine makers for their booster shots.

An advisory panel for the agency is meeting Thursday to discuss the new FDA authorizations and recommendations.

Once the panel makes its decision, the CDC director has the final say on the guidelines. If the agency agrees with the FDA’s decisions, the booster shots could be rolled out as soon as this weekend.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)

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