CDC: Prison COVID-19 cases undercounted without mass testing

Georgia’s refusal to conduct mass testing in its prison population has only added to the number of COVID-19 infections, a figure considerably higher than the totals released by the Department of Corrections , according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sixteen correctional facilities nationwide — which had previously tested only symptomatic prisoners for the virus — participated in the study. From April 11 through May 20, mass testing was conducted at each of the prisons.

The results should serve as a wake-up call to state leaders, who have repeatedly stood in the way of widespread testing, said Emory University epidemiology associate professor Anne Spaulding, one of the authors of the study.

Mass testing increased total known cases from 642 to 8,239, the report found.

A policy where you seldom test people without symptoms is a dangerous one,” Spaulding said. “Infected persons without symptoms can transmit infection to others.”

Among those routinely untested: Prisoners exposed to the virus who are asymptomatic. Four inmates at three different prisons told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they were not tested even after a cellmate contracted COVID-19.

“That’s correct,” said Julia Hendricks, formerly the health services administrator at Autry State Prison in southwest Georgia. “You just about had to be dead before they’d give you a test.”

Hendricks said she was fired in May after attempting to test inmates in one section of the prison where infections had spiked. The testing was prohibited, said Hendricks, whose official cause for dismissal was failure to communicate with the warden.

“They just don’t want the public to know the actual numbers,” she said. “The official policy was to keep a lid on it.”

So far, Georgia has shown no inclination to reverse its policy even as other states, including Texas and Tennessee, began mass testing inside their correctional facilities.

The DOC did not respond to a request for comment.

Spaulding, a leading epidemiologist who has worked within prison and jail populations for more than two decades, said she has offered free consultation to the state DOC and county jails. Just a few health districts and their local jails have enlisted her aid.

Nationally, as of Tuesday, at least 102,494 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, a 7% increase from the week before, according to the nonprofit Marshall Project.

The Georgia DOC reported that as of Friday, 1,303 offenders and 683 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. Of those cases there have been 39 reported fatalities. Based on a conservative reading of the CDC study, the actual number of cases could be as high as 20,000 rather than 2,000.

In Tennessee, for instance, which started mass testing in April, there have been 3,300 cases, almost double Georgia’s total. But Georgia has nearly twice as many prisoners (54,000) as Tennessee (30,000), according to figures compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative.

“There’s no overall plan right now,” said Spaulding, who helped the Washington, D.C., jail system shrink its infections to near zero. She’s also consulting with Houston and California.

“But not in my backyard,” she said. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”