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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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Nearly 9 Million Are Without Water in Texas, Some Face Electric Bills up To $17,000

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  • More than 8.8 million people in Texas remained under boil water notices Monday, and over 120,000 had no water service at all. 
  • Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Sunday that the state has distributed around 3.5 million bottles of water, though many of the lines to receive that water were plagued with hours-long waits.
  • Meanwhile, power outages in the state have fallen below 20,000, but many Texans are also beginning to receive astronomical electric bills of as much as $17,000.
  • Both Abbott and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said those prices are not the fault of customers. While some form of forgiveness is likely, no immediate plan has been outlined yet. 

Millions Without Water

As of Monday morning, nearly 8.8 million people in Texas are still under boil water notices following last week’s snowstorm. That’s about one out of every three Texans.

Despite being a giant chunk of the state’s population, that figure is actually an improvement from 10 million people on Sunday. 

Another 120,000 Texans are still without water service at all.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Sunday almost 3.5 million bottles of water have been distributed across Texas by helicopter, airplane, and truck.

The need for water has been extremely visible. An Austin City Council member shared a video on Twitter Sunday showing a massive line of vehicles waiting for clean water. Some waited for more than an hour before the distribution event began. At another site, she said cars began lining up more than five hours before the event. 

Abbott said the state is bringing in more plumbers to increase repair efforts for damaged water systems. Additionally, Abbott said homeowners without insurance could qualify for emergency reimbursement from FEMA.

Meanwhile, one large-scale effort from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY.) has now raised more than $5 million since first being launched on Thursday. That money will go to several organizations, including the Houston Food Bank, Family Eldercare, Feeding Texas, and the Bridge Homeless Recovery Center.

Texas Electric Bills Soar as High as $17K

All but just under 20,000 Texas homes and businesses have now had their power restored as of Monday morning.

That’s a stark contrast from the more than 4 million that were out of power at one point last week. 

While that’s largely good news, many Texans are now beginning to receive sky-high electric bills. That’s especially evident for those whose power stayed on during the storm. In fact, some people have now told multiple media outlets they’re facing bills as high as $17,000.

One 63-year-old Army vet, who was charged $16,752, told The New York Times that his bill was about 70 times higher than normal.

“My savings is gone,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do about it, but it’s broken me.”

As far as why his and others’ eclectic bills are so high, many people in Texas have plans that are directly tied to the wholesale price of electricity. Usually, that helps keep their costs low, but as demand for power surged during last week’s snowstorm, those prices hit astronomical highs. 

In a statement on Saturday, Abbott said Texas lawmakers “have a responsibility to protect Texans from spikes in their energy bills that are a result of the severe winter weather and power outages,” 

He added that the state Legislature is working “on solutions to help Texas families and ensure they do not get stuck with skyrocketing energy bills.”

In a similar tone, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said in an interview with CBS on Sunday, “It’s not the consumers who should assume [these] costs. They are not at fault for what happened this week.”

That said, Turner also laid blame at the feet of the Legislature, calling the current crisis “foreseeable” on the part of lawmakers because a similar snowstorm and outages struck Texas in 2011.

Turner added that, at the time, he was part of the Texas legislature and had filed a bill that would have required the agency overseeing Texas’ grid to “ensure that there was an adequate reserve to prevent blackouts.”

“The leadership in Austin did not give it a hearing,” he said. 

While no aid has been fully guaranteed yet, Texas has prevented electric companies from being able to shut off power for people who don’t pay their bills on time. 

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

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Texans Still Face Broken Pipes, Flooding, and Carbon Monoxide Poisoning as Million Regain Power

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  • The number of Texans without power fell from 3.3 million on Wednesday to below 500,000 by Thursday.
  • Still, millions are currently under a boil advisory, pipes have burst as they begin to thaw, and some individuals have died or been hospitalized because of carbon monoxide poisoning. 
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday that it has sent generators, water, and blankets to Texas, adding that it’s working to send additional diesel for generators.
  • Gov. Greg Abbott and President Joe Biden have also reportedly discussed the possibility of extra funding for people’s electricity bills, as well as for burst pipes.

Power May Be Back but Problems Persist

Power outages in Texas Thursday morning fell to under 500,000 — down from 3.3 million Wednesday morning. 

According to the state’s main grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the remaining outages are largely weather-related and not connected to problems related to forced outages. 

While that return of power to millions is significant, Texans are still facing a host of other problems.

For example, there have been numerous reports of carbon monoxide poisoning as people still without power try to keep warm in their cars or through other means. An adult and a child were found dead Tuesday after running their car inside of a garage, prompting Houston police to issue a statement warning that “cars, grills and generators should not be used in or near a building.”

Six children and four adults were rushed to the hospital Wednesday night for carbon monoxide poisoning after setting up grills inside their homes. 

Even for those now with power, water has become a major issue. On Wednesday, 7 million Texans were placed on a boil advisory and about 263,000 were without functioning water providers. 

One reporter tweeted out a video of people lining up at a park to fill up buckets of water.

“This is not a third world country,” she said. “This is Houston, Texas.”

The Food and Drug Administration and the National Weather Service have even cited melting and boiling snow as an emergency option if people can’t find water elsewhere, an option many have already turned to. 

For some, all these problems only seemed to compound in the form of burst pipes. One viral video shows water gushing out of a third-story apartment. Others posted images of their broken pipes and the damage they have caused. 

As a result, a number of local media outlets have begun to outline steps people can take once their pipes start to thaw or if they break. 

Amid Problems, Aid is Being Distributed

Alongside the overwhelming amount of problems, there has also been a large aid response.

A FEMA spokesperson said Wednesday that the agency has sent 60 “very large” generators to help keep hospitals and other critical infrastructure open. 

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki added that FEMA is preparing to move diesel into Texas to keep that backup power going.

So far, FEMA said it has sent “millions of liters of water” and “tens of thousands” of blankets.

Governor Greg Abbott and President Joe Biden have also reportedly discussed the possibility of extra funding for people’s electricity bills, as well as for burst pipes. That’s because as the storm first hit, electrical demand surged. Since many Texans have plans connected to the wholesale price of electricity, they’re potentially set to be hit with sky-high bills.

Among other issues plaguing Texans is food spoilage; however, that can potentially be reimbursed through renters’ and homeowners’ insurance.

According to an official from the Insurance Council of Texas, “Food coverage is often related to personal property.”

Notably, there are some stipulations depending on individual circumstances and policy. To learn more about how insurance providers accept food spoilage claims, click here.

See what others are saying: (KTRK) (The New York Times) (Houston Chronicle)

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Texas Mayor Tells “Lazy” Residents “No One Owes You” Anything Amid Power Outages

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  • When residents in Colorado City, Texas turned to a local Facebook group to ask if the city or county had emergency shelter plans in place to keep people warm amid power outages, Mayor Tim Boyd shared a Facebook message that sparked outrage.
  • “Sink or swim it’s your choice! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!” he wrote before suggesting that those struggling are “lazy.”
  • “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish,” he added. “Get off your ass and take care of your own family!”
  • Hours later, Boyd said he was speaking as a citizen since he had already turned in his resignation and had not signed up to run for mayor again ahead of the deadline a few days ago. It’s unclear when he actually resigned and he is still listed as mayor on the city’s website.

Mayor Under Fire

The mayor of Colorado City, Texas is facing intense backlash for comments he made on Facebook Tuesday claiming the local government has no responsibility to assist residents struggling amid historic winter temperatures.

The remarks came after community members turned to a local Facebook page asking if the city or county had emergency shelters in place to keep people warm amid widespread power outages.

In response, Mayor Tim Boyd wrote, “No one owes you [or] your family anything; nor is it the local government’s government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this!”

“Sink or swim it’s your choice!” He continued. “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!”

Boyd argued that residents should come up with their own plans to keep their families safe. Those that are sitting at home in the cold waiting for assistance, he said, are “lazy” as a direct result of their raising.

“Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish,” he continued, likely meaning perish in his statement.

He blamed the calls for basic services like heat and electricity a product of a “socialist government where they feed people to believe that the FEW will work and others will become dependent for handouts.”

He closed by telling locals to “quit crying,” adding, “Get off your ass and take care of your own family!”

Source: KTXS

Mayor Doubles Down, Says He Already Resigned

That now-deleted post drew immediate backlash as Texans continue to slam the government for not delivering adequate support amid the storm.

The outrage eventually prompted Boyd to write a follow-up post, which he also later deleted.

In it, he claimed that his comments “were taken out of context” and did not apply to the elderly; however, he continued to double down.

“I was only making the statement that those folks that are too lazy to get up and fend for themselves but are capable should not be dealt a handout. I apologize for the wording and some of the phrases that were used!”

Boyd said he already turned in his resignation and had not signed up to run for mayor again ahead of the deadline a few days ago. He also said he wished he would’ve kept his words to himself or been more descriptive, and he added that all the anger and harassment since his post has caused his wife to lose her job.

Source: KTXS

Ultimately, he said he was speaking as a citizen since he is no longer mayor and called for the harassment of his family to stop.

According to The Washington Post, it isn’t immediately clear if he resigned before or after writing his controversial Facebook post. As of early Wednesday morning, the paper noted that he was still listed as mayor on Colorado City’s website, and city council agendas showed that he had served in that role as recently as last week.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (KTXS) (People)

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