Prison COVID retesting protocols questioned

Some say state should test inmates after isolation period

JOSE NEGRON, a prisoner at MCI-Norfolk, tested positive for COVID-19, spent 10 days in isolation, and then was returned to his unit even though he was still complaining of a cough, according to attorneys. Two weeks later, almost half of the unit of around 60 inmates had tested positive for the virus, and one is hospitalized and on a ventilator, according to that prisoner’s mother.

The outbreak, pieced together from prisoner advocates and family members of prisoners last week, is raising concerns about the state prison system’s protocols for when and how to deal with inmates who have tested positive and when they can return to the general inmate population.

The state Department of Correction said it can’t discuss a specific inmate’s medical issues without privacy waivers.

A spokesman on Friday said the department’s current testing data didn’t support the claims made by attorneys. “As of yesterday, MCI-Norfolk had 14 active cases of COVID-19 out of more than 1,200 inmates,” he said on Christmas. “Less than 4% of the inmates in Housing Unit 1-1 have tested positive during the past month.” It is unclear how many prisoners were actually tested on Negron’s unit.

The agency said it and its medical care contractor WellPath have been following guidelines established by the US Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in testing prisoners and keeping COVID-19 at bay.

Those guidelines say someone infected with the coronavirus should go into medical isolation for 10 days after the onset of symptoms. Individuals can emerge from isolation after the 10-day period if their fever has subsided for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications.

For asymptomatic individuals who test positive, medical isolation and other precautions can be discontinued 10 days after the date of their positive test result.

“A limited number of persons with severe illness may warrant extending medical isolation and other precautions for up to 20 days after symptom onset,” said a Department of Correction spokesperson.

Ruth Greenberg, an attorney who represents prisoners at MCI-Norfolk, said prisoners are being treated by the Department of Correction as if they are all the same. She said fairly large inmate groups are tested for COVID-19 and those that test positive are placed in isolation.

“They will [then] take all those people off the list [of COVID positive prisoners], unless they’re pretty much intubated, and return them to general population, which is why we’re seeing spikes,” Greenberg said. “They don’t retest. They simply wait [for the isolation period to end] and declare them COVID free.”

That approach, according to Greenberg, doesn’t take into account the fact that inmates may be at different stages of infection when they get tested initially. For some, the isolation period may be sufficient, she said. But for others, it may not be long enough to make sure they have stopped “shedding” the virus, which means the inmate can continue to spread it.

Before releasing into the general prison population an inmate who has had COVID-19, Greenberg said a second test should be administered to confirm the prisoner is no longer infected.

The spokesperson for the Department of Correction said a second test is not necessary. “A test-based strategy is no longer recommended by the CDC to determine when to discontinue isolation for those in a group isolation facility, except in certain circumstances,” the spokesperson said.

Monik C. Jiménez, an epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School, said someone who tests positive should be tested again after completing isolation and before they start congregating with other inmates.

Sometimes, she said, prisons have difficulty keeping inmates isolated when they’re symptomatic and have taken a test. “They’re not always isolated properly, and sometimes when they’re waiting for test results, they’re put back in with people without symptoms,” she said.

The DOC explained Friday that isolation refers to “separating people who are sick from people who are not, and quarantine refers to a precautionary step for people who may have been exposed to the virus.”

Nelson Rodriguez, 57, is the prisoner at MCI-Norfolk who is now on a ventilator. His mother, Carmen Barry, has been trying to get information from the Department of the Correction since she heard from multiple sources, including her son’s girlfriend, that he’d been hospitalized and on a ventilator since around December 17.

“I feel resentment that an infected inmate was placed in the unit and caused other inmates to get COVID,” she said.

According to a weekly report from the Department of Correction, 726 of the prisoners at MCI-Norfolk are housed alone, 376 room with another person, and 107 occupy spaces with two or more other people.

At Norfolk, the unit in question, known as the 1-1, is composed mostly of one or two-man cells and there is one cell with four beds.  Even inmates in individual cells can become infected in prison because they use shared spaces like bathrooms, showers, phone rooms, and hallways in the half hour a day they get outside their cells.

Some of the state’s prisons have seen spikes in COVID-19 cases, only to have the numbers plummet once inmates come off their isolation period.

On December 17, for example, the Department of Correction reported 8 people had COVID-19 at MCI-Concord, when the number had been 159 less than 48 hours before.

Asked if the new number was a typo, or the result of a second round of testing, a spokesman for the DOC said: “The reduction in active cases reflects recoveries meeting clinical criteria.”

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The state prison system has performed more than 22,000 COVID-19 tests during the pandemic. Currently, 183 of the state’s 6,500 prisoners have COVID-19, according to the Tuesday numbers.

Eleven prisoners have died from the virus, including two earlier this month, according to the Department of Correction’s official count. One of the men who died last week was in his 40s at MCI-Shirley and another was in his 70s at MCI-Concord. They both died at local hospitals, one after being hospitalized for two weeks. Five people died during the late spring at Massachusetts Treatment Center, three at MCI-Shirley, and one at MCI-Norfolk.