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Less than 1 percent of Alabama inmates have been tested for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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As the number of prison workers in Alabama who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 continues to rise, the number of cases among inmates in the state’s dangerously overcrowded prisons has remained flat, and that likely comes down to testing. 

Inmates in Alabama are only tested if they are exhibiting symptoms and a physician recommends the test. On the contrary, prison workers seek out tests on their own and are asked to voluntarily self-report positive results. 

As of Thursday evening, 58 prison workers self-reported positive COVID-19 results, while just 11 inmates have had confirmed cases, two of which remained active, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates, just 155 had been tested for the virus as of Wednesday. That’s less than 1 percent of Alabama’s prison population.

ADOC says the department is following the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines for correctional facilities, which currently do not state that inmates who aren’t exhibiting symptoms should be tested, but many other states have begun blanket or universal testing in prisons, and they’re finding that many who showed no symptoms had the virus and are spreading it to others. 

Advocates for the incarcerated say those serving behind the fences cannot keep themselves safe from coronavirus, that social-distancing in overcrowded facilities isn’t possible and sanitation is subpar. 

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As the number of confirmed cases in Alabama continue to rise, those advocates worry that without broad testing, outbreaks inside the prisons become much more likely, and the virus won’t stay inside the prison, as workers can bring it with them back into their communities. 

Alabama has the fourth-lowest COVID-19 testing rate among inmate populations in the U.S., according to the Covid Prison Project, a group of public health scientists who track the virus in U.S. prisons. (Statistics for 17 states were incomplete.)

Alabama had tested 5.66 inmates per 1,000 as of Thursday. 

Alabama also had the sixth-lowest percentage of confirmed cases among inmates, according to the Covid Prison Project, with just .41 confirmed cases per 1,000 inmates. 

“Currently, inmates are tested for COVID-19 only with the order of a physician, who makes a medically informed decision to do so if certain CDC criteria are met. This is in-line with CDC guidelines for correctional institutions,” ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose wrote to APR in a message Friday. 

“At this time, the ADOC is not testing asymptomatic inmates with the exception of those moved to level-two quarantine,” Rose said. “However, all inmates referred to a community physician, health center, or local hospital for non-emergent appointments or medical procedures will be tested for COVID-19 upon medical provider or facility request, or in accordance with their testing requirements/protocols.” 

Regarding ADOC’s future plans for universal testing, Rose said that the department continues to monitor closely COVID-19’s evolving impact on the correctional system, state and country “and gather additional data around which informed and strategic operational decisions can be made.” 

“As we have since the onset of this pandemic, the Department’s intent is to keep the public apprised, without compromising security, of our ongoing and evolving response to COVID-19 in our facilities,” Rose continued. 

“It is important to note the measure of success relative to COVID-19 in our facilities is the same as it in the free world, and that measure is not about zero positive tests. It’s about slowing the impact of the virus and maintaining critical medical services, which we believe we are doing and will continue to do,” Rose said in the message. “It’s about doing everything we can to protect those who may be have been exposed, and preventing them from potentially infecting others while contagious. Finally, it’s about caring for those who do get sick and helping them to fully recover wherever possible. This is what we are doing, and this is what we remain committed to in addition to the important mission of the Department.” 

While the CDC does not currently recommend testing inmates who are asymptomatic, several states are doing so, and the results have been a massive jump in the number of confirmed cases. 

“When you look at other states that have begun to test more, or have even authorized mass testing, their cases immediately skyrocketed,” said Dillon Nettles, policy analyst for the ACLU of Alabama, speaking to APR on Friday. 

In Ohio, 78 percent of all inmates at the Marion Correctional Institute tested positive for coronavirus after prison officials there decided to test the entire prison population. 

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday ordered the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation to test every inmate in the state for COVID-19, according to The Herald-Dispatch

“Most all of the other states have had a really bad go of it with their prisons,” Justice said during his daily press briefing, according to the newspaper. “All of these people are in an area that’s confined and, naturally, they interact in a closer area so, therefore, they’re more exposed. I hope and pray that what we’re doing is the right thing and, at the end of the day, it will protect people because they deserve to be protected.”

Public health officials in California in late April broadened the scope of who could be tested to include prisoners, who are more at risk of the virus due to their confined living spaces and lack of sanitation. 

While the CDC does not currently recommend testing asymptomatic inmates, a recent CDC report does say that screening alone isn’t enough, and that perhaps testing may be an important strategy in slowing the spread of the virus inside prisons. 

The CDC’s report on COVID-19 in correctional facilities released May 6 found that only 69 percent of jurisdictions reported data to the CDC, but among them, 53 percent only reported confirmed cases among staff, and said there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates. 

Information on the percentage of inmates and staff tested was not available, according to the CDC report, so it’s unclear whether inmates were being tested in the 53 percent of jurisdictions that reported no cases among the incarcerated. 

The CDC report noted that although symptom screening is important, it’s not enough to stop an outbreak in prisons. 

An investigation of a COVID-19 outbreak in a skilled nursing facility found that about half of cases identified through facility-wide testing were among asymptomatic people, who likely contributed to the virus’s spread inside the facility, the report states. 

“These data indicate that symptom screening alone is inadequate to promptly identify and isolate infected persons in congregate settings such as correctional and detention facilities,” the CDC’s report reads. 

“Testing might become an important strategy to include when it is more widely available and when facilities have developed plans for how the results can be used to inform operational strategies to reduce transmission risk,” the report continues. 

Nettles with the ACLU of Alabama said the organization rejects ADOC’s statements that the department is doing everything within its power to maintain the health and safety of people in state facilities. 

“That wasn’t true before COVID-19 and it’s certainly not true now,” Nettles said. “The only true way to put the best interests of the people who are incarcerated forward is to first, ensure that there is mass testing for those who are inside the facilities, for each and every individual.” 

The CDC recommends additional strategies, including reducing prison populations by releasing some inmates. 

“Some jurisdictions have implemented decompression strategies to reduce crowding, such as reducing or eliminating bail and releasing persons to home confinement or community supervision,” the report states. 

Although some municipal judges in Alabama have begun releasing a portion of local jail inmate populations to reduce the number of incarcerated people during the coronavirus outbreak, none of those measures have been taken up by officials who oversee Alabama’s prisons to specifically address the pandemic. 

Nettles said ADOC and the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles should be working to release as many inmates as possible from the overcrowded prisons. 

Instead, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles last week increased the prison population by revoking probation of more inmates than the bureau released on parole, Nettles said. 

Nettles said there’s also a concern that large outbreaks in prisons could tax an already overburdened hospital system, and noted a shortage of intensive care beds in Montgomery, a city that recently had been sending COVID-19 patients to hospitals in Birmingham due to the scarcity of ICU beds. 

Shon Hopwood, an associate professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said during an online press briefing Thursday that many prisons are located in small rural communities, which poses a risk to everyone living nearby. 

“It’s not just a concern with the people in prison. This is eventually going to get out and overwhelm these small communities where our prisons are located, and our health system is ill-equipped to be able to handle that sort of large scale outbreak,” Hopwood said. 

“Everything that is recommended to all of us on the outside in terms of social distancing, in terms of hygiene and sanitation protection is almost impossible on the inside,” said Marc Howard, a professor and director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University speaking at that same press briefing Thursday. “And so when you have prisons that are overcrowded the way American prisons are, to a degree that’s unprecedented across the world and throughout history, you cannot separate people so that they’re not in contact with each other.” 

Howard described prisons and jails as tinderboxes for the spread of COVID-19, and said  while there’s been some work as of late in some areas to prevent its spread inside the fences “unfortunately, it’s come much too late, because COVID-19 is really rampant throughout most prisons and jails.” 

“Ultimately, I think it’s a tragic situation that you have people who are essentially helpless, and we need as a society on the outside to really care about that, and to feel the pain and to learn from it,” Howard said. “So that this doesn’t happen in the future, and hopefully so that some deep decarceral measures can be taken now.” 

Howard said studies have shown that almost half of Americans have a relative in their family who is, or was incarcerated. 

“But because of the stigma they don’t talk about it. They keep it hidden, and this is actually much closer to home than we realize,” Howard said. “And what I think we need to think about, especially when hearing about these horrible stories about infection running rampant throughout prisons and jails, is that these might be our brothers and sisters, our cousins, our mothers and fathers. Our children.”

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Madison County mask order goes into effect Tuesday

Eddie Burkhalter

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Studies have shown that wearing masks reduces transmission of coronavirus.

Madison County’s health officer issued a face mask order to slow the spread of COVID-19, which goes into effect Tuesday at 5 p.m. 

Madison County Health Officer Dr. Karen Landers, who also serves as the assistant state health officer, issued the order, which requires those over the age of 2 to wear masks in businesses or venues open to the public, while on public transportation, in outdoor areas open to the public where 10 or more people are gathered and where maintaining 6 feet of distance from others is not possible. 

“We need to do all we can to limit the spread of COVID-19,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said in a statement. “Until we have a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, wearing a face covering in public is a key measure we have available to prevent transmission of the virus.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle in a statement expressed support for the mask order. Madison County now joins Jefferson County, Montgomery, Mobile and Selma in requiring masks while in public. 

“This is a simple math problem. Since June 16, the number of positive cases in Madison County has tripled, and the number of hospitalizations has increased 660 percent,” Battle said in the statement. “We need to take precautionary measures, such as wearing face covers, distancing 6 feet, and handwashing to provide a safe environment for our citizens.” ​​

Madison Mayor Paul Finley also noted the surging cases and said he supports the order. 

“Since day one, we as elected officials have said we would work to find the balance of personal versus economic health. While personal responsibility is still paramount, our dramatic rising numbers dictate this step be taken to continue to support all citizens’ safety,” Finley said in a statement. 

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Medical experts believe COVID-19 is most often spread when an infected person, with or without symptoms, talks, coughs or sneezes. Studies have shown that wearing masks reduces transmission of coronavirus.

Other exceptions to Madison County’s mask order include:

  • Persons while eating or drinking.
  • Patients in examination rooms of medical offices, dental offices, clinics or hospitals where their examination of the mouth or nasal area is necessary.
  • Customers receiving haircare services, temporary removal of face coverings when needed to provide haircare.
  • Occasions when wearing a face covering poses a significant mental or physical health, safety or security risk. These include worksite risks.
  • Indoor athletic facilities. Patrons are not required to wear face coverings while actively participating in permitted athletic activities, but employees in regular interaction with patrons are required to wear face coverings or masks.
  • Private clubs and gatherings not open to the public and where a consistent 6-foot distance between persons from different households is maintained.

“Although not mandated, face coverings are strongly recommended for congregants at worship services and for situations where people from different households are unable to or unlikely to maintain a distance of 6 feet from each other,” the department said in a statement on the order.

This is a simple math problem. Since June 16, the number of positive cases in Madison County has tripled, and the number of hospitalizations has increased 660 percent."

Parents must ensure children over 2 years old wear masks in public, and childcare establishments and schools are to develop their face covering policies and procedures, according to the department.

The order also mandates that businesses and venues open to the public provide a notice stating that face coverings are required inside, and signage is required at all public entrances. 

“Wearing a face covering can help keep family, co-workers, and community safe,” Harris said. “This is the simplest act of kindness you can take for yourself, your family and your community, especially for those who are at high risk of contracting the virus.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health advises these actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds
  • Social distance by staying 6 feet away from others
  • Avoid people who are sick
  • Stay home if you can; work remotely if possible
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a face covering when around others
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
  • Monitor your health

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For the first time, more than 1,000 hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama

The new highs of 919 patients in hospitals being treated for COVID-19 on Sunday and of 1,016 on Monday were 40 percent higher than the number of patients a week ago.

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama hit another record high on Sunday. (Stock photo)

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama hit record highs Sunday and Monday, jumping over 900 on Sunday for the first time since the pandemic began, and then surging past 1,000 for the first time on Monday.*This story has been updated throughout at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, July 6 to include the latest figures.

The new highs of 919 patients in hospitals being treated for COVID-19 on Sunday and of 1,016 on Monday were 40 percent higher than the number of patients a week ago on June 28 and more than 50 percent higher than two weeks ago. The seven-day average of that number was also at a new record high Monday.

Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association and a former state health officer, told APR on Monday that 893, or 57 percent of the state’s supply of ventilators, were available Monday morning, while 309 of 1,669 ICU beds, or 18.5 percent, were available. 

Williamson said while those two indicators are encouraging, it may take several weeks to learn whether many of those hospitalized will worsen and require ICUs and ventilators, and possibly lead to a rise in deaths. He said another possibility is that younger people are being admitted for COVID-19 but may not become sick enough to require more of the hospitals’ resources, and doctors are getting better at caring for coronavirus patients.

“We just don’t know yet. We don’t know which way we’re going to go,” Williamson said. “We just know we got a whole lot more cases than we had a month ago, and we’ve got a lot more hospitalizations than we had a month ago.” 

Williamson said that from the week beginning June 29 to the week starting July 5, the average number of daily COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by 140, rising from 658 hospitalizations to 798 hospitalizations on average during that time. He believes the number of confirmed cases will continue to spike after Fourth of July celebrations. 

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For six straight days, Alabama has added more than 900 new COVID-19 cases daily, and on Monday the state recorded 925 new cases, and the 14-day average of new cases was also higher than it’s been since the pandemic began, at 1,025. 

While testing has increased in Alabama, so too has the percent of tests that are positive, a marker public health experts say shows that there still isn’t enough testing and many cases are going undetected. 

We just know we got a whole lot more cases than we had a month ago, and we've got a lot more hospitalizations than we had a month ago.”

The 14-day average of percent positivity was 13.5 percent on Monday, and taking into account incomplete data on negative tests in April, which inflated the positivity percentage, the data Monday was at a record high. Public health experts say the number should be at or below five percent.

The seven-day and 14-day average of daily COVID-19 deaths both were at 11 on Monday, and the numbers have remained largely steady for most of May, June and July.

In the last week, there have been 79 COVID-19 deaths in the state. Since the pandemic began, there have been 984 deaths in Alabama attributed to the virus, and the Alabama Department of Public Health estimates that 23 more deaths are likely due to COVID-19.

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Alabama reports 1,750 new COVID-19 cases ahead of July 4th

The seven-day average of cases per day surpassed 1,000 for the first time Friday.

Brandon Moseley

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Since the first coronavirus case was identified in Alabama in early March, 41,362 Alabamians have tested positive for COVID-19.

Heading into the Fourth of July holiday weekend, Alabama is reporting more cases of COVID-19 than ever before as hospitalizations continue a worrisome surge and the state’s death toll rises.

Since the first coronavirus case was identified in Alabama on March 30, 41,362 Alabamians have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

The state reported at least 1,758 positive cases on Friday alone, the most since the pandemic began. In the past seven days, 7,645 cases have been reported, the most of any seven-day period since the pandemic began.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases — used to smooth out daily variability and inconsistencies in case reporting — surpassed 1,000 for the first time Friday.

Ahead of the holiday, the Alabama Department of Public Health is urging Alabamians to celebrate at home due to the coronavirus crisis.

On Friday, the Alabama Department of Public Health announced that another 22 Alabamians have died from COVID-19 just in the last 24 hours. That takes the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 983. Of those, 96 died in the last week alone (June 27-July 3).

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A few simple steps can greatly reduce your chances of being exposed and exposing others to COVID-19. Everyone should practice good hygiene, cover coughs and sneezes, avoid touching your face and wash hands often. Avoid close contact with people who are sick, even inside your home, and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others not in your household.

The use of cloth face coverings or masks when in public can greatly reduce the risk of transmission, particularly if the infected individual wears a mask. Many people are contagious before they begin to show symptoms — or may never develop symptoms but are still able to infect others.

Alabama reported an additional 22 deaths Friday, bringing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 983, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Of those, 96 died in the past seven days alone, or roughly 10 percent of the state’s total death toll. In the past 14 days, 171 people have died, or roughly 17 percent of the state’s death toll.

Even as the number of tests also increases — at least 430,000 have been tested — a larger percentage of tests are coming back positive compared to any other time period, according to the Department of Public Health and APR‘s tracking.

Roughly 15 percent of tests in the past week have been positive.

The large increases come as Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday extended the current “safer-at-home” public health order, which was set to expire Friday, to July 31.

The number of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 is also at a new high, with at least 843 people hospitalized with the virus on July 2, the most since the pandemic began.

On Monday, in Jefferson County, where cases are increasing rapidly, residents were ordered to wear masks or cloth face coverings in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. On Tuesday, the city of Mobile also began mandating masks or face coverings. The cities of Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Selma have also implemented face covering orders.

Of the 7,645 cases confirmed in the last week, 1,321 — or roughly 17 percent — were reported in Jefferson County alone. Nearly 28 percent of Jefferson County’s 4,802 total cases have been reported in the last seven days. Since March, 152 people have died in Jefferson County.

A campaign rally for President Donald Trump that was planned for Mobile on July 11 has been canceled because of the rapidly worsening coronavirus situation there. Mobile County has had 633 newly diagnosed cases in the last week, or roughly 8 percent of the state’s cases this week. Mobile County has had a total of 3,904 cases and 134 deaths over the course of the pandemic.

Montgomery County reported 426 newly diagnosed cases in the last week. Overall Montgomery has had 3,947 total cases and 104 deaths thus far.

Tuscaloosa County has 393 new cases this week. The surging number of cases in Tuscaloosa and Lee Counties — where 276 tested positive this week — could potentially put the 2020 college football season in jeopardy. Tuscaloosa has had a total of 2,188 cases and 42 deaths, while Lee County has a total of 1,302 cases and 37 deaths.

Despite making it through several months with relatively moderate increases, Madison County is also experiencing a surge of new cases in recent weeks — with 407 cases in the last week alone. Madison has had 1,271 cases and seven deaths.

Many people are flocking to the beach for the Fourth of July holiday, where the coronavirus is also surging in Baldwin County with 328 new cases in the last seven days. Baldwin had been largely spared to this point with 828 cases in total and nine deaths. This week’s increase accounts for 40 percent of the county’s total case count.

Alabama is not alone in seeing surging case numbers. Forty of the 50 states reported rising coronavirus cases in the last week. On Thursday, 57,236 new cases were diagnosed and 687 Americans died. The U.S. death toll from the global pandemic has risen to 131,823.

Globally, there have been 11,092,229 cases diagnosed, though the real number is likely much higher. At least 526,450 people have died from COVID-19, and, with 208,860 new cases diagnosed on Thursday alone, there is no sign that this global pandemic will be over any time soon.

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Second Julia Tutwiler Prison worker dies after testing positive for COVID-19

The death comes as cases and deaths among inmates and staff continue to mount across the state’s prisons. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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A second employee at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women has died after testing positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Thursday. 

The worker recently tested positive for coronavirus and has since died, the Alabama Department of Corrections said in a press release, which doesn’t note when exactly the person tested positive or passed away. 

The death comes as cases and deaths among inmates and staff continue to mount across the state’s prisons. 

ADOC last week announced the first death of a prison worker at Tutwiler, while an outbreak of COVID-19 at the infirmary at the Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County resulted in the deaths of two men serving there.

As of Thursday there have been 10 confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates and 30 cases among staff at Tutwiler prison. At Staton prison, there were 18 cases among inmates and 23 among workers. 

ADOC on Thursday also announced another worker at Tutwiler self-reported that they tested positive for COVID-19, as did a worker at the Bullock Correctional Facility and one at Limestone Correctional Facility. 

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Additionally, another inmate who was exposed at the infirmary at Staton prison, two and St. Clair Correctional Facility and two at Easterling Correctional Facility also tested positive for the virus. 

Confirmed cases among staff continue to outpace cases among inmates, and that likely comes down to access to testing. ADOC doesn’t offer free testing for staff, but ask that any worker who tests positive outside of work self-report the test results to the department. Inmates must either be exhibiting symptoms and be tested at the request of an ADOC physician, or they are tested at local hospitals while being treated for other conditions, which is how the majority of confirmed cases among inmates have been identified. 

Even though confirmed cases among inmates — 75 as of Thursday — remains much lower than confirmed cases among staff — 171 as of Thursday — nine inmates have died after testing positive for the virus, while two workers have died after learning they were positive for the virus. 

Of the approximately 22,000 inmates in Alabama prisons, 413 have been tested since the start of the pandemic, according to ADOC’s statistics.

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