Omicron Outbreaks in Prisons Put Everyone at Risk, But Data Is Scarce

The Omicron version of COVID-19 is a unique public threat because the highly contagious viral disease drives infection rates to record levels. However, there is a lack of data about COVID in prisons and prisons across the United States that leaves researchers, incarcerated people, and the general public in the dark about outbreaks that can put everyone at risk.

The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), a law school, tracks the pandemic of prisoners and prisons. COVID infection and deathThese are often multiple times higherThere are more people in prisons than there is free. Jails and prisons have reported 451,000 COVID infections and nearly 7,000 deaths among incarcerated people nationally as of January 1, but Josh Manson, a spokesman for UCLA’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project, said researchers think the actual number of infections is much higher.

Manson claimed that hard data regarding infections, deaths, and vaccinations among prisoners and prison guards were inconsistently reported, manipulated, or even incorrectly presented. hiddenby sheriffs or prison officials. Jails and prisons across America restricted access to COVID information in 2021 or stopped publishing it altogether. Researchers find this particularly troubling because advocates, policymakers and incarcerated persons and their families rely upon this data to gauge the health risks and hold prisons responsible.

“It was hard to get good data before Omicron, and it’s harder now,” Manson said in an interview. “Prisons and jails generally, and especially jails, have been a block box for data and especially health data, so it’s been really frightening throughout the whole pandemic to not know what’s going on inside.”

Omicron is not allowed in prisons and jails. researchers sayThis increases the risk for many people as deadly epidemics spread from prison walls into surrounding communities, putting even more people at greater risk. contribute to millions of infections. Although it is extremely contagious, the latest variant often causes milder symptoms in the vaccinated. However, testing and vaccination regimes at prisons and prisons can help to prevent this from becoming a widespread epidemic. vary widelyThere are no facilities that can be used in the same state as another. This is also true for reporting COVID data to public, making Omicron behind bars extremely difficult.

Guards and prisoners who are not regularly tested for the virus will spread it unknowingly to prisons and prisons where health care is available. notoriously inadequateLiving conditions poor and crowded, and solitary confinement — a common response to COVID infections — leaves thousands of people with long-term physical and mental health problems.

“I am personally worried that there are lot of Asymptomatic and mild cases of COVID that are not being tested for and spreading in jails and prisons right now,” Manson said.

Researchers used data from state prisons to estimate that one in three prisonersBefore vaccines reached many prisoners, COVID-19 was detected in a few prisoners. Today, it appears that the number of infections in state prisons has dropped — but the public only has access to data that prison officials are willing to report, which is often outdated, incomplete or missing.

Manson stated that many local jails don’t report case totals and that prisons in multiple states do not report the cumulative number. Louisiana is an example. only reportsCurrent active cases The data we have about infections is as good as the testing that is done. Manson stated that testing practices should be widely used. often “abysmal.”Many places of incarceration don’t report cumulative test results and positive rates. It is possible that some cases are not detected by tests.

Vaccination is considered the best defense against COVID, but data on vaccinations is “scarce and incomplete” across state and federal prison systems, according to a recent review of available dataPrison Policy Initiative.

As of December 14, prisons in only four states — Delaware, Missouri, Michigan, and Minnesota — were releasing data on booster shots for incarcerated people. More recently, Montana’s prison system announcedHawaii started offering a booster program. cash incentivesThis week, incarcerated prisoners can get jabs. Researchers did not find any evidence that boosters were available for incarcerated persons in dozens of states.

August was a difficult month for the Delta variant. The COVID Behind Bars Data Project issued a damning report. report detailing decisions by prisons in states with some of the largest COVID outbreaks — including Florida, Louisiana, Georgia and Texas — to restrict pandemic data or stop reporting altogether. Florida, for instance, was a major COVID hotspot across the U.S., and globally, for much of the last summer. But, on June 2, the Florida Department of Corrections stopped reporting. stopped reportingData on COVID in State Prisons

While most states report some data in one format or another, Manson said online “dashboards” often go without updates for weeks or are replaced by PDF reports that cause trouble for web scrapers used by researchers. Only three states have data on all five metrics, which the Prison Policy Initiative identified as critical for understanding the pandemic. This includes cumulative counts of cases, tests, vaccinations, and case counts. Data from prisons across the country that was made available to the media during the massive 2020 outbreaks has dried up.

“A year ago — when the information peaked, and before Delta arrived — prisons slowly started reporting less information because they felt it wasn’t necessary, or wasn’t worth their resources, or they thought ‘the pandemic is over,’” Manson said. “Or, they just found an opening and an excuse to start hiding their data.”

For example, earlier this year the UCLA researchers noticed the cumulative number of COVID cases — the number that represents cases over the entire course of the pandemic –reported in federal prisons was dropping, which didn’t make sense. The Bureau of Prisons was actually subtracting cases from its total when COVID-infected prisoners were released. This allowed the federal prison system report fewer overall cases. Only Maryland reports the number and type of booster shots given to prison guards. refusedVaccines at alarming rates, fought mandates in court

In prisons and jails, social distancing is not possible. Many prisons have replaced it with solitary confinement. This is a form torture.

Incarcerated people continue to report terrifying conditions: An anonymous woman incarcerated at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California, told advocates that there’s no way to avoid COVID in prison.

“I had over a dozen negative tests since they started testing for COVID only to have them move two inmates into our dorm while we’re on quarantine,” the incarcerated woman said in an oral history projectearlier in the year. “Both arrived complaining of still not having taste or sense of smell, and within a few days of arriving one began to have symptoms, fever and chills but would avoid the daily temperature checks. Within a week two more had fevers, by that time it was too late.”

Across the country, people jailed inside the nation’s vast network of immigration jails reported “unsanitary and uninhabitable living conditions and denial of adequate PPE and COVID-19 safety measures” in calls to the National Immigration Detention Hotline, according to the organization Freedom for Immigrants, which runs the hotline. According to ICE, immigrants in prison claim that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and its contractors, have been slow in making booster jabs available and providing vaccine information for different languages. civil rights groups recently slammed ICEWe are sorry for not having implemented a national booster program to support immigration prisons in December.

ICE didn’t respond to a request for information about booster shots at the time this story was published. Layla Razavi is the interim co-executivedirector of Freedom for Immigrants. She stated that ICE has not implemented even the most basic COVID safety protocols. Court orders to release the medically fragile and make way for social distancing have been ignored by ICE. Over the course the pandemic, at most 32,244 COVID-related infections have been reported in immigration prisons. Like other jailers, however, the official tally reported by ICEHas been disputed by observers.

“And since President Biden took office, the number of people inside detention has multiplied, placing more immigrants inside at an even greater risk,” Razavi said in an email. “Enough is enough. We call on President Biden to act swiftly and conduct releases before more people perish.”

The good news is that Manson said that vaccination rates among incarcerated persons tend to be higher than the national and statewide averages. However, it’s unclear if those who initially refuse vaccines can easily access shots if they change their minds.

“I would like to see some evidence that people who initially refused vaccinations are being continually offered it,” Manson said.