An empty visitation area at a North Carolina prison. Visitation has restricted at North Carolina prisons due to the coronavirus, but visitors aren't the only point of contact with the outside world. A staff member at the Greene County Correctional Institute has tested positive after exposure to a family member who tested positive. Photo courtesy of the NC Department of Public Safety

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Hours after the head of the prison system briefed state lawmakers, North Carolina confirmed its first case of COVID-19 among state prison staff.

The staff member, who works at Maury Correctional Institution in Hookerton, tested positive after being exposed to a family member who had tested positive for the virus, according to a statement by the Department of Public Safety.

“The Division of Prisons is following CDC and state health department guidelines in conducting contact tracing and notification procedures, as well as isolation and cleaning protocols,” the statement read. “While asymptomatic, the employee is believed to have had only very limited, brief interactions with the offender population.”

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Earlier in the day, WRAL reported that two housing units at the facility were placed on quarantine. According to the N.C. Department of Public Safety website, Maury Correctional Institution has six units. At least one unit houses people with chronic health problems, who could be at increased risk of medical complications if they contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

It is unlikely but possible that the staff did not transmit the illness inside the facility, according to public health researcher Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, who studies incarceration and public health at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

“But the fact that staff have it pretty much points to the fact that it is also inside of the facilities among people who are incarcerated,” Brinkley-Rubinstein said.

To date, nobody incarcerated in North Carolina has tested positive for COVID-19. Of the 100 tests that have been administered, 60 have come back negative, and 40 are pending, according to John Bull, a public information officer for prisons in the Department of Public Safety.

At the current rate, it takes up to a week for COVID-19 test results to come back, meaning it could be several days before tests can determine if there are cases inside the facility. That is a long time, Brinkley-Rubinstein said, even for people who aren’t incarcerated.

“But in correctional facilities, where there’s very little availability of social distancing or other preventive measures, one week is absolutely devastating and in some ways renders the test useless,” Brinkley-Rubinstein said.

Faster tests, which can have results in as little as four hours, are new in North Carolina. The department, Bull said, is searching for ways to get the tests done faster, as “information is critical at this point.”

A warning of what is to come

Waiting for a positive test result is somewhat beside the point because everyone knows it is coming, said Daniel Bowes, attorney at the nonprofit N.C. Justice Center. Bowes pointed to Rikers Island, the jail for New York City, which has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, with disease transmission rates far surpassing any other place in the country.

The chief physician at Rikers followed the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he wrote on Twitter. And yet, COVID-19 is running rampant in the jail.

Bowes, Brinkley-Rubinstein and several legislators all lauded the efforts of the Department of Public Safety to keep its staff and the people in its custody safe and healthy. But Bowes, along with a coalition of civil rights groups and a separate group of public health experts, has warned that keeping COVID-19 out of the prisons will be all but impossible.

Both the civil rights groups and the public health experts have called for a significant reduction in the prison population. This discussion has been taken up by the governor’s office and was part of the briefing Tuesday from the Department of Public Safety to legislators on the House Select Committee on COVID-19.

“My main worry is that it’s going to take this conversation too long to evolve to where it needs to be,” Bowes said.

“People are going to suffer in the interim.”

To date, no state entity, including the governor’s office, the Department of Public Safety or district attorneys, has announced plans to release prisoners as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread and the harm of COVID-19.

In the meantime, the risk of contracting COVID-19 inside prison could be severe, according to David Rosen, a public health researcher at the UNC School of Medicine.

“Compared to younger and healthier populations, those who are aged or have existing conditions are at higher risk of hospitalization, the need for intensive care, and death,” Rosen wrote in an emailed statement to CPP.

That means that the people incarcerated at Maury Correctional Institution who have chronic illnesses are at particular risk and likely reflects the reason two units went on quarantine. Limiting movement of people through the prison when there are suspected cases of COVID-19 is in line with best practice recommendations by the CDC.

“Given the relatively high transmissibility of COVID-19 — some of which occurs prior to symptoms emerging — it will require herculean efforts to stop further disease transmission once COVID-19 enters a prison population,” Rosen wrote.

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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