Two public health experts are calling into question the state’s protocols for detecting COVID-19 in regional jails and prisons.
Oct. 6, 2021 • Written by Kyle Vass
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (Dragline)—Over the past month, an average of 160 people in state custody have been tested daily for COVID-19. That means on any given day, officials are only aware of the COVID-19 status for 1.6% of the more than 10,000 people incarcerated in West Virginia.
Dr. Lauren Brinkley-Rubenstein, co-founder of the COVID Prison Project and professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, said the state’s efforts are inadequate and fail to show an accurate picture.
“When you have a large number of cases, and you’re not testing everyone who could have come into contact with the virus, that’s just really an artificial case rate that they’re representing,” Brinkley-Rubenstein said.
A state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson said officials are “following guidance from the CDC” regarding testing, but a published policy directive titled “COVID-19 Pandemic Response Plan” shows otherwise.
The 43-page policy hosted on the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources website makes no mention of testing people upon intake, despite CDC guidance to do so.
Brinkley-Rubenstein said, “A lot of jails and prisons are [testing upon intake]. It’s particularly important in the context of a jail where you’ve got high churn. You’ve got people coming and going and the average length of stay is about 72 hours.”
The state’s policy also diverges from CDC guidelines regarding “serial re-testing” for quarantined groups exposed to COVID-19. The CDC directs officials to re-test quarantined groups of exposed people every three to seven days regardless of vaccine status. That doesn’t appear to be happening in West Virginia jails.
Some states like California have gone beyond CDC guidance and are collecting random samples to try and detect COVID-19 before anyone in a facility presents symptoms, Brinkley-Rubenstein said.
On Wednesday, the Department of Corrections’ online policies still contained an outdated version of CDC guidelines published on March 26, 2020. The CDC’s most recent guidance was issued June 7, 2021.
Under-testing and the North Central Regional Outbreak
When the state’s contracted healthcare provider for jails and prisons alerted officials last month to potential problems with testing, officials used the letter in a legal action requesting that a third-party inspection of its most overcrowded facility be postponed due to safety concerns for inspectors.
Referring to the outbreak at North Central Regional Jail, the CEO of PrimeCare, emailed Corrections officials on Sept. 23, stating a “significant portion of the non-tested population is symptomatic.” Officials submitted the email as evidence in a legal action requesting inspectors postpone an inspection “to a later date when all parties can safely access” the facility.
A Dragline report on insufficient testing at North Central Regional Jail, published three days before PrimeCare emailed DCR, showed the state’s testing for the recent outbreak was failing to measure up to its past efforts. The motion to postpone the third-party inspection was denied.
Increased Testing Only Part of Solution
Despite minimal efforts to provide adequate testing, the infection rate sits at 20%. Both Brinkley-Rubenstein and Dr. Robin Pollini, a professor of epidemiology at WVU, agreed that officials are missing many cases by only testing 1.6% of incarcerated people daily.
Pollini added that increased testing isn’t enough.
“You could test more people,” she said. “But if you then don’t have good infection control in place, it doesn’t really matter how many people you test.”
She said it is unwise to release people whose infection status is unknown and that doing so can put nearby communities at risk.
“You’re taking a bunch of people, you’re putting them in close proximity to each other. We don’t really know how many people are infected, and then you’re putting them back out into the community,” she said.
When asked to clarify on infection control practices at North Central, a Corrections spokesperson said the “facility has multiple sections for precautionary quarantines, and for isolating positive cases, and remains capable of accommodating each.” But when asked to confirm this claim, a person incarcerated at the facility who asked not to be publicly identified said, “They don’t do shit,” adding that officials “just don’t let you leave your cell.”
As of Oct. 1, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has stopped publishing its daily COVID reports online.