Every inmate, employee and contractor in West Virginia’s corrections system will be tested for COVID-19, although it’s unclear when the testing will start or how it will work.
At his Thursday coronavirus news conference, Gov. Jim Justice said there are roughly 14,000 people involved in corrections who will be tested. The state will use lessons learned from mass testing at nursing homes to help with the new initiative, which Justice said he believes will be easier.
“It took us two weeks to do the entire nursing home community, and [we have] half the number of people in our corrections,” Justice said. “We do have a real plan for [mass testing] ... everyone is moving very, very quickly.”
Mass testing for the incarcerated comes after at least 111 inmates at at Huttonsville Correctional Center, in Randolph County, tested positive for the virus this week. Tests for more than 400 inmates at the prison are still pending, while 542 have been returned negative.
To date, testing at other state jails and prisons has been minimal, according to numbers reported by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. As of 3 p.m. Thursday, only 146 inmates (not including those at Huttonsville) have been tested for the virus: 93 in state jails, 47 in state prisons, one in a community corrections center and five children from the state’s juvenile detention centers.
“I surely want everyone to know, it wasn’t like we weren’t testing anyone whatsoever in the jail community,” Justice said. “We were testing those who have symptoms, who showed sickness.”
Last week, after the first inmate tested positive at Huttonsville, authorities moved to test just those who were living in the unit with him. When positive results started coming in from initial testing, Justice said he told authorities at the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation to test the entire prison. Now, seeing the positives that resulted, Justice said, it’s only right to do the same at other correctional facilities to protect inmates as best as possible amid the pandemic.
One month ago, a coalition of West Virginia advocacy and policy groups for criminal justice reform wrote to Justice to urge mass testing for all corrections employees and incarcerated people in the state.
On May 9, Betsy Jividen, Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation commissioner, responded to the groups in a letter obtained by the Gazette-Mail. In it, she wrote that testing capacity was not large enough to handle more testing within the corrections system, nor was more testing mandated.
Today, Justice said, that no longer is the case.
“We have the testing capability. We didn’t before — remember when having one testing kit was a big deal? We didn’t have it then,” Justice said. “We have the testing capability now, though, and we’re going to test everyone.”
In addition to expanding testing across the corrections system, Justice said, the state will continue working with the local health departments to get more testing into the communities around Huttonsville and, if needed in the future, other jails and prisons.
“We’ll do expanded testing, offering it to anybody and everybody to take advantage of free testing, just to [make] double, triple sure we don’t have a situation where it is leaking out in the communities,” Justice said.
Locations and times for those tests should be announced over the weekend, the governor said.
Jeff Sandy, Cabinet secretary for the newly named Department of Homeland Security, which was formerly the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said jails and prisons will continue practices they believe will limit the threat of spreading COVID-19 within inmate populations. When a new prisoner is taken to a correctional facility, they are kept in an “individual location” for 14 days, where their health is monitored to ensure they aren’t exhibiting any symptoms of the virus. If any inmate shows symptoms, they are given a test, Sandy said.
Without mass testing, though, there was no way before to catch people who might have been asymptomatic and unknowingly spreading it to others. But, even when more testing comes to facilities, the threat of COVID-19 will still exist.
“It’s very difficult to identify people who have [COVID-19] who don’t have symptoms, or are pre-symptomatic. We know that the spread is oftentimes done by people who are not diagnosed,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar. “Understanding and predicting those people is very difficult. Even if we said we were going to test everybody, that test is only good the moment it’s done.”
That’s why it’s crucial to employ mitigation efforts, like isolation, wearing a mask, washing hands and avoiding large gatherings, Marsh said.
So far in West Virginia, 1,935 people have tested positive for the coronavirus out of about 91,000 total tests. Seventy-four people have died.
As the state has begun reopening, positive cases have been creeping up, but Justice said he does not believe that’s cause for concern yet.
“For what I know, the issue today is not West Virginia,” Justice said. “The issue is Huttonsville, Huttonsville, Huttonsville.”
Cases in a contained environment, like a jail or prison, are different from cases of community spread, Marsh said. They tend to spread quicker and infect more people. But, he said, health officials are monitoring infections to ensure there are not unexpected spikes in other areas, especially after the Memorial Day weekend.
“We’re keeping a close eye on things. So far, the numbers are not changing dramatically at the community level, which is really fantastic,” Marsh said. “We feel that West Virginia is still going well as we continue to open, but we also want to reinforce every time that we address the good people of West Virginia that the virus is still out there. We know that we still have the most vulnerable population in the country. Don’t let your guard down.”
Also Thursday, President Donald Trump announced that National Guard orders will be extended through August as units across the country assist states and localities with responses to the coronavirus pandemic.