Michigan prison staff are now required to get tested for COVID-19
Michigan Department of Corrections staff who work in prisons will be required to get tested for COVID-19 under an emergency order issued Wednesday.
While the department has tested all prisoners through mass testing efforts, staff testing was voluntary prior to the order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The order applies to anyone who works inside the boundaries of a state prison or comes in contact with prisoners on the job.
Weekly testing will be required of employees who work in facilities with positive cases confirmed among prisoners or staff within the last 14 days. Testing in those situations will be ongoing until no positive cases have been identified for 14 days, according to the order.
The order states that employees who are not tested when it's required will not be allowed to work.
Additionally, the department will be required to test new hires on or before their start date.
An employee who is considered a close contact of someone who's positive for COVID-19 or who has symptoms of the virus will be tested.
More:West Michigan prison reports COVID-19 outbreak
More:Whitmer to send $65M in federal coronavirus relief to needy schools
Employees previously confirmed to have COVID-19 will not need to be tested again for 90 days.
The order takes effect immediately, but the department will have until Sept. 8 to begin weekly testing.
As of Tuesday, 4,611 prisoners had tested positive for the virus, an infection rate of about 12% of the 37,493 people tested since the beginning of the pandemic. Sixty-eight prisoners with the virus have died.
The department is required to test prisoners when they enter a facility at intake, before they are transferred to another prison and before they are released.
Of roughly 12,000 staff members, 439 have tested positive. Three have died.
MDOC began offering free, voluntary testing to employees in late spring. Since then, 2,239 staff have been tested by the department, according to Chris Gautz, MDOC spokesman. It's not known how many employees have been tested in the community because they were required to report the results to the department only if they were positive.
“COVID-19 can spread quickly in congregate living settings,” MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said in a news release. “Prison staff are the principal vector for COVID-19 to enter a prison facility. It is therefore imperative that they are regularly tested for COVID-19 to protect prisoners, the staff themselves, and their communities.”
Voluntary staff testing has been a point of frustration for many prisoners and their families, who feel that because visitations were halted in March, staff were the main source of infections inside prisons.
Gautz has said previously that mandatory staff testing would come with complexities, such as what to do if an employee refuses to take a test.
"All those complexities are still true on our end, but when a emergency public health order is issued, that supersedes any issues we had to overcome in finding a way to do it ourselves," Gautz said in an email Wednesday. "There were also questions (about) whether the department had the authority to do so on its own, but MDHHS has the authority to mandate testing for our staff in a public health emergency."
Gautz said staff who decline the weekly testing would not be eligible to work and would not be paid for the days they were off work until they were tested.
Angie Jackson covers the challenges of formerly incarcerated citizens as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, with support from the Hudson-Webber Foundation. Click here to support her work. Contact Angie: email@example.com; 313-222-1850. Follow her on Twitter: @AngieJackson23