Jails and prisons in Oklahoma are ramping up their screenings of incoming inmates, identifying areas for quarantine and urging staff to stay home if they feel sick in an effort to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in detention facilities.
No cases have yet to be reported in any detention facilities in the U.S., but many in Oklahoma are bracing for the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Though jails and prisons are contained by nature, health experts have long warned that detention facilities are vulnerable to infectious disease spread. In these facilities, which can sometimes be overcrowded, access to soap is often limited or restricted and alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be considered contraband. People reside, eat and sleep in close quarters.
In China, coronavirus sickened 555 prisoners in late February across five facilities in three provinces. Last week in Iran, 54,000 inmates were temporarily released due to virus fears, according to the Associated Press.
It’s unclear what steps the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, which operates 24 corrections facilities, is taking to protect staff and inmates from COVID-19. The agency did not respond to questions from The Frontier on how it is working to prevent a possible spread or how it would respond to one. As of Monday, DOC reported it had more than 24,000 inmates housed in state and private facilities across the state.
Meanwhile, private prison operator CoreCivic, which runs two prisons in Oklahoma, said it was taking steps to prevent and prepare for the virus, but would not respond to a reporter’s questions on what specific actions the company was taking.
“Inmates are in mandatory custody and options are limited for isolation and removal of ill persons from the environment,” stated the Centers for Disease and Control in a 2009 guidance for correctional facilities.
The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a pandemic, and the Oklahoma State Department of Health on Friday confirmed the first case of the virus in the state. State officials have said there is no evidence of community spread in Oklahoma and the risk of infection to the general public is low.
“Oklahoma has a statewide plan in place and we have a strong network of partners at the state and local levels who remain committed to ensuring the health and safety of our people,” said Gov. Kevin Stitt at a news conference announcing the case.
On Tuesday afternoon, the state identified its second presumptive positive case of the virus. A case is considered a presumptive positive when a public health laboratory identifies a positive result but is awaiting CDC’s confirmation.
Both patients were residents of Tulsa County and the cases were considered travel related, according to health officials. As of the afternoon of March 11, the health department reported 18 tests for the virus were pending and 16 people had tested negative.
In correctional facilities, inadequate personal hygiene, barriers to medical care and infection control could contribute to the spread of diseases, the CDC found in a study on MRSA infections.
Though prison officials know who is coming in and out of facilities, jails are more unpredictable and have a high turnover in daily populations. People entering jails can introduce new pathogens and most people are released after only a few days.
There are 131 city and county detention and lockup facilities across the state.
“Specifically with our facility, it’s just a rotating population,” said Mark Myers, a spokesman for the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office.
The Oklahoma County Detention Center is the largest jail in the state with an average daily population of about 1,700 people. Though there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the jail, officials, who are taking guidance from the CDC and state health department, have a strategy in place and are taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, Myers said.
The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office, along with several community partners such as the Oklahoma County Emergency Management and the jail’s medical provider, Turn Key Health Clinics, recently met to discuss plans for assessment, prevention and contamination at the jail, Myers said.
“A couple of weeks ago, we sent out an email to the entire staff regarding information they need to know about coronavirus prevention/treatment and the importance of washing hands,” he said in an email.
Coronavirus posters from the CDC explaining how to prevent and treat the virus have been placed throughout the facility, Myers said.
“We have encouraged staff who have symptoms to stay home to help prevent the spread of any infectious diseases,” he said.
In an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, inmates suspected of having it would be isolated in reverse air cells at the jail, Myers said. If someone tested positive for COVID-19, they would be sent to the hospital, he said.
“The Department of Corrections has 15,000 people that are brought into prisons annually,” Myers said. “We have 30,000-35,000 people who are brought in. With that population that’s always coming in and going out we have to be diligent.”
Casey Roebuck, a spokeswoman for the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, said jail leaders have met with health officials and have plans in place in case there’s an outbreak at the facility.
The jail’s health care provider, Turn Key Health Clinics, has the ability to collect specimens from inmates and send those to the Oklahoma State Health Department for testing, Roebuck said.
If needed, the jail is equipped to isolate people, she said. The facility’s medical unit has areas that do not recirculate air that could be used to quarantine inmates in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. If the jail were to see a larger-scale outbreak, there are empty pods that could be used to house impacted inmates, she said.
Private prison operator CoreCivic, which runs facilities in Cushing and Holdenville, said in an emailed statement it was “committed to preventing and mitigating the spread of communicable” diseases and viruses.
“Each of our facilities also has a comprehensive emergency response plan in place, which includes processes to: detect and track diseases; collect, analyze, and report data on individuals exhibiting signs of illness; and to separate the sick from the well,” said spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist.
Gilchrist did not respond to questions by The Frontier related to how facilities would isolate inmates or what specific steps CoreCivic would take in the case of an outbreak. As of Monday, CoreCivic facilities housed more than 3,000 people, according to the DOC.
A group of Democratic senators, led by Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, penned letters on Monday to CoreCivic and other private prisons operators questioning their COVID-19 preparedness plans.
“Given the spread of the virus in the US—and the particular vulnerability of the prison population and correctional staff—it is critical that CoreCivic have a plan to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus to incarcerated individuals and correctional staff, along with their families and loved ones and provide treatment to incarcerated individuals and staff who become infected,” Warren wrote in a letter.
Across the U.S., more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 30 deaths had been confirmed as of the afternoon of March 11, according to the CDC.
Staff writer Dylan Goforth contributed to this report