Active COVID-19 cases in Michigan prisons are down, but experts say threat isn't over

Angie Jackson Kristi Tanner
Detroit Free Press

Active cases of COVID-19 in Michigan’s prisons have fallen since the novel coronavirus tore through the Department of Corrections in the spring and infected 10% of the incarcerated population. But experts, staff and prisoners say now is not a time for complacency. 

All state prisoners have been tested for COVID-19 at least once, a result of mass testing that began in April at certain facilities with outbreaks and was expanded the following month. Of the 37,192 prisoners tested, results for 3,871 were positive.

Eleven people among the current population of more than 35,000 prisoners have active infections, MDOC Director Heidi Washington said when testifying to the Senate Oversight Committee on Wednesday. None of the prisoners sick with the virus are hospitalized, she said. 

The department is continuing to test prisoners on an individual basis, such as when they have symptoms, when they transfer into the prison system from county jails and after off-site hospital stays of more than 24 hours, said Chris Gautz, MDOC spokesman. He said mass testing is continuing at prisons when there’s an uptick in cases in prisoners or staff.  

The steep toll of COVID-19 remains top of mind for many involved in the system. MDOC in May ranked highest in the nation for prisoner deaths from coronavirus-related causes. Sixty-eight prisoners and three staff have died.

The case fatality rate for prisoners — the proportion of people with COVID-19 who died from it — is 1.8%.

While 10 of the state’s 29 prisons have so far remained unscathed with no confirmed cases inside their walls, some worry about a potential second wave.

Robert Hinds is incarcerated at Chippewa Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula, where no prisoners or staff have tested positive. With downstate residents vacationing in the U.P., he fears it’s only a matter of time before an employee brings the virus into the prison. Heightening his anxiety are his observations that with all negative tests at Chippewa, some prisoners have become lax about precautions such as wearing masks and washing their hands.

“It’s overwhelming being in a situation when you’re essentially sitting back anticipating an infection,” Hinds said. 

'Perfect storm' for transmission 

Several prisons emerged as hot spots for the virus in April. The hardest hit was Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, where more than half the prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19. Lakeland houses some of the state’s oldest prisoners, and its population has suffered the most loss at 23 deaths. 

At Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, another previous hot spot for the virus, 92% of prisoners tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. The majority of prisoners there participated in the voluntary antibody testing. 

MDOC has tested a quarter of its population for antibodies, and 40% have tested positive. 

As the pandemic wears on, prisoners who’ve recovered from the virus and those who have tested positive for antibodies aren’t in the clear, said Emily Martin, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Population density, poor ventilation and underlying health conditions among prisoners combine for a “perfect storm of factors” that amplify transmission in correctional settings, she said. 

“Even if you've got a lot of antibodies, if you're in a very high-exposure setting, the virus can overcome that. And so I wouldn't let my guard down, just because you had a whole bunch of positive antibody tests in a facility,” Martin said.  

More:Almost everyone at one Michigan prison tests positive for COVID-19 antibodies

More:Some Michigan prisons will soon offer video calls with loved ones

Of the 3,871 prisoners confirmed to have the virus, roughly two out of three reported no symptoms, Gautz said. 

Martin said the concentrated settings of prisons facilitate spread. If you walked down the street and started testing people for COVID-19, it would be like finding a needle in a haystack, she said. But everyone will have some level of exposure in a prison with infected people. 

“Then in that case, you're going to expect to find a lot of asymptomatic transmission,” she said.

Frequent testing is key. "You don't have to test everyone all the time. But test enough people so that you can have an early warning signal when something's happening,” she said. 

Staff testing

Staff testing has been a point of contention. 

The department began offering free, voluntary testing to all staff in May. Before that, employees who wanted to get tested were told to seek testing on their own. 

Just over 2,000 staff have elected to get tested through MDOC, Gautz said. Employees tested in the community are only required to report the results to the department if they have COVID-19. Overall, 398 of roughly 12,000 total staff have tested positive.

Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, said many of the union’s members turned down the optional testing when the department rolled it out because MDOC required they sign a waiver. 

The form included language stating the employee could not sue the state over any claims of injury, illness or economic loss that may result from taking the test.

“We thought why would we sign a waiver with an employer when we can get tested in the public and not sign a waiver,” Osborn said. 

Gautz said that language was later removed. 

Staff cases have cropped up in recent weeks at prisons including Baraga Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula and St. Louis Correctional Facility in Gratiot County. 

More:Michigan juvenile lifer who died of coronavirus in prison was weeks away from parole

More:Infection rate at Michigan prison exceeds New York, Chicago jail hot spots

Some prisoners and loved ones question how the department can keep the virus out of prisons going forward when staff testing isn’t mandatory and screenings and temperature checks can’t catch asymptomatic carriers. 

“Of course they’re a risk,” said Heather Moore, whose husband is incarcerated at Parnall. She said of staff testing: “And they aren’t mandated. Why? They are at the same risk as the inmates by trying to meet the expectations of their job and stay healthy themselves."

Gautz said mandatory testing comes with complexities, such as what to do if an employee refuses to take a test.

Dr. Alysse Wurcel, an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center who advises the Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association, said corrections departments should encourage staff to get tested at the onset of symptoms and assure them they won’t lose their jobs if they test positive. She doesn’t think staff testing should be mandatory, however. 

“There’s a huge stigma to this. I don’t think you can demand that anyone gets tested,” Wurcel said. “I think you have to really have low-barrier access to testing so that no one feels like they're going to suffer from getting tested.”

The cost of testing for prisoners and staff has totaled more than $2.5 million, Gautz said. He said the costs to the state are eligible to be recovered by federal coronavirus relief funds.

‘They had a family’

Vernesha Washington believes MDOC should have acted faster to protect her medically vulnerable uncle, 55-year-old Marcus Washington, and others with underlying conditions at the beginning of the pandemic. He had diabetes, had both legs amputated and was on dialysis while incarcerated at Detroit Reentry Center. On April 4, he became the second prisoner with COVID-19 to die. He hadn't complained of symptoms. 

Before he died, Marcus Washington told his loved ones he would wrap a sock around his mouth when he left his single-man cell to wait in line among other prisoners for his medication because he didn’t have a mask. The department said it began issuing reusable masks to prisoners and staff on March 26 and finished the distribution on April 6. 

“I feel like when it was broadcast on the news that this was happening and people were vulnerable, they should’ve taken action to protect everyone like him,” Vernesha Washington said. 

Vernesha Washington says she misses her uncle’s frequent calls, their weekly visits and his lessons on the importance of forgiveness. She feels that his sudden death reduced him to a number in the department’s eyes. Like others who die in MDOC’s care, the department’s prisoner information website lists him as “discharged.”

“They had a family. They had names,” she said. “He is not just a Michigan prisoner. His name is Marcus Washington.”

Contact Angie Jackson: ajackson@freepress.com; 313-222-1850. Follow her on Twitter: @AngieJackson23. Contact Kristi Tanner: ktanner@freepress.com or 313-222-8877.