- 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.
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)
Biden to Mandate COVID Vaccines for Federal Workers as CDC Changes Masking Guidance
News of the efforts came on the same day that the U.S. reported more than 100,000 new daily COVID cases for the first time since February.
Federal Vaccine Mandate
President Joe Biden will announce Thursday that all federal employees must get vaccinated against COVID-19 or consent to strict testing and other safety precautions, White House officials told reporters Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, Biden said he was considering the requirement but did not provide any more information.
While the officials also said the details are still being hashed out, they did note that the policy would be similar to ones recently put in place by California and New York City, which respectively required state and city workers to get the jab or submit to regular testing.
Also on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidelines to recommend that Americans who live in areas “of substantial or high transmission,” as well as all students and teachers, wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status.
Delta Causes Spikes, But Vaccines Still Prove Effective
The renewed COVID mitigation efforts come as the delta variant is driving massive surges all over the country.
Coronavirus cases have quadrupled throughout July, jumping from a weekly average of 11,799 on the first day of the month to 63,248 on Tuesday, according to The New York Times tracker. Tuesday also saw new daily infections topping 100,000 for the first time since February, with more than 108,000 reported, per The Times.
While the vast majority of new infections are among people who have not been vaccinated, there have also been increasing reports of breakthrough cases in people who have received the jab.
Those cases, however, do not mean that the vaccines are not effective.
No vaccine prevents 100% of infections. Health officials have said time and time again that the jabs are intended to prevent severe disease and death, and they are doing just that.
According to the most recent data for July 19, the CDC reported that only 5,914 of the more than 161 million Americans who have gotten the vaccine were hospitalized or died from COVID-19 — a figure that represents 0.0036% of vaccinated people.
While safety precautions may be recommended for some people who have received the vaccine, many media narratives have overstated the role breakthrough cases play in the recent spikes. As New York Magazine explains, it is imperative to understand these new mask recommendations are not happening because the vaccine is not effective, but because not enough people are getting the vaccine.
“Because breakthrough infections have so often made the news due to their novelty, that can create a perception of more cases than are actually happening — particularly without more robust tracking of the actual cases to provide context,” the outlet wrote.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (CNBC)
Wisconsin Police Deny Planting Evidence in Viral Video, Release Their Own Body Cam Footage
The footage police released shows that during a search, officers found a corner tear from a plastic bag inside a backseat passenger’s pocket. An officer then discarded it into the car after determining that it was empty.
Viral Video Appears To Show Officer Planting Evidence
The Caledonia Police Department in Wisconsin has responded to a viral cell phone video that appears to show an officer planting a small plastic baggie inside of a car during a traffic stop.
The now-viral footage was posted to Facebook by a man who goes by GlockBoy Savoo.
The user, who also filmed the clip, wrote in his post’s caption that the officer did this “just to get a reason to search the car” and said the cop didn’t know he was being recorded by the passenger.
Police Shut Down Accusations With Their Own Footage
After that video spread across social media, many were outraged, calling the Caledonia police dirty for seemingly planting evidence. All the outrage eventually prompted the department to announce an investigation Saturday.
Within hours, the department provided an update, claiming that officers didn’t actually plant any evidence or do anything illegal.
Police shared a lengthy summary of events, along with two body camera clips from the incident. That statement explained that the driver of the vehicle was pulled over for going 63 in a 45mph zone.
Two passengers in the backseat who were then spotted without seatbelts were asked to identify themselves and step out of the car. During a search of one passenger’s pockets, an officer pulled out “an empty corner tear” from a plastic baggie.
Police claim the corner tear did not contain any illegal substances, though they said this type of packaging is a common method for holding illegal drugs.
In one body cam clip, an officer can be heard briefly questioning the backseat passenger about the baggie. Then, that piece of plastic gets handed off to different officers who also determined it as empty before the officer in the original viral video discarded it into the back of the car.
The officer can also be seen explaining where the plastic came from to the passenger recording him.
“Aye, bro you just threw that in here!” the front seat passenger says, as heard in his version of the events.
“Yeah, cause it was in his pocket and I don’t want to hold onto it. It’s on their body cam that they took it off of him…I’m telling you where it came from, so. It’s an empty baggie at the moment too, so,” the officer replies.
The department went on to explain that while it would discourage officers from discarding items into a citizen’s car, this footage proves that evidence was not planted.
Authorities also noted that no arrests were made in this incident and the driver was the only one issued a citation for speeding. The statement added that since four officers were present at the scene, police have more than six hours of footage to review but they promised to release the footage in full in the near future.
See what others are saying: (Heavy)(CBS 58) (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Medical Groups, Local Leaders Push for Healthcare Workers and Public Employees To Get Vaccinated
The move comes as COVID cases have nearly quadrupled in the last month due to the rapid spread of the highly infectious delta variant.
Increased Calls for Mandatory Vaccinations in Certain Sectors
More than 50 of America’s largest medical groups representing millions of healthcare workers issued a statement Monday calling for employers of all health and long-term care providers to require mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.
The groups, which included the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and 55 others, cited contagious new variants — including delta — and low vaccination rates.
“Vaccination is the primary way to put the pandemic behind us and avoid the return of stringent public health measures,” they wrote.
The call to action comes as new COVID cases have almost quadrupled during the month of July, jumping from just around 13,000 infections a day at the beginning of this month to more than 50,000.
While the vast majority of new infections and hospitalizations are among those who have not received the vaccines, many healthcare workers remain unvaccinated. According to data collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, over 38% of nursing home staff were not fully vaccinated as of July 11.
An analysis by WebMD and Medscape Medical News found that around 25% of hospital workers who were in contact with patients had not been vaccinated by the end of May when vaccinations became widely available.
In addition to calls for medical professionals to get vaccinated, some local leaders have also begun to impose mandates for public employees as cases continue spiking.
Last month, San Francisco announced that it was requiring all city workers to get vaccinated. Also on Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that all municipal employees — including police officers and teachers — must either get the jab or agree to weekly testing by the time school starts in September.
Dr. Fauci Says U.S. Officials Are Considering Revising Mask Guidance for Vaccinated People
Numerous top U.S. health officials have applauded efforts by local leaders to mitigate further spread of the coronavirus, including the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who confirmed Sunday that federal officials are actively considering whether to revise federal masking guidelines to recommend that vaccinated Americans wear face coverings in public settings.
In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people who are vaccinated do not need to mask in public. Although that was a non-binding recommendation, many states and cities that had not already lifted restrictions on masking began to do so shortly after.
But now, local leaders in areas seeing big spikes have begun reimposing mask mandates — even for those who are vaccinated — including major counties like Los Angeles and St. Louis.
In his remarks Sunday, Fauci also emphasized that, despite claims from many conservatives, those efforts are in line with the federal recommendations, which leave space for local leaders to issue their own rules.
While Fauci and other top U.S. public health officials have encouraged local governments to take action, Republican lawmakers in several states are taking steps to limit the ability of local leaders and public health officials to take certain mitigation measures.
According to the Network for Public Health Law, at least 15 state legislatures have passed or are considering bills to limit the legal authority of public health agencies — and that does not even include unilateral action taken by governors.
Some of the leaders of states suffering the biggest spikes have banned local officials from imposing their own mask mandates, like Arkansas, which has the highest per capita cases in the country right now, as well as Florida, which currently ranks third.
Notably, some of the laws proposed or passed by Republicans could go beyond just preventing local officials from trying to mitigate surges in COVID cases and may have major implications for other public health crises.
For example, according to The Washington Post, a North Dakota law that bans mask mandates applies to other breakouts — even tuberculosis — while a new Montana law also bars the use of quarantine for people who have been exposed to an infectious disease but have not yet tested positive.