The latest wave of COVID-19 is beginning to strike prisons in Pennsylvania. Several county jails are reporting their largest outbreaks in months, as new infections surge statewide to the highest level since early May. With vaccination rates remaining low and the aggressive Delta variant spreading, prisons need to keep up vaccination efforts, and authorities must work harder to keep more people out of jail.
With low vaccine protection, outbreaks strike jails
The coronavirus returned in force to jails in Allegheny, Bucks, and Montgomery counties last week after months of relative calm. In Allegheny County Jail, 83 people in custody tested positive. In Bucks County, 47 people in jail custody contracted the virus--the most since last January--while Montgomery County reported 18 new cases among incarcerated people. In state prisons, where 88 percent of incarcerated people have been vaccinated--a rate far higher than in county jails--there are just 25 incarcerated people with active infections. There is a greater number of infections among state prison staff, and still less than 1 in 4 of them report being vaccinated.
The jail outbreaks have brought renewed attention to the issue of requiring vaccinations for staff, who come and go daily from communities where the Delta variant is surging. Bucks County is reportedly considering some kind of vaccine mandate for jail staff. Allegheny County adopted a new policy this month that is similar to the new “vaccine or test” rule for state prison staff announced last week: all new hires must be vaccinated, and any employees who remain unvaccinated will be tested weekly for the coronavirus. But other counties--including York, Lehigh, and Northampton--have said recently that they have no plans to mirror the state’s policy.
Routine testing should be part of a “multilayered” approach
Policies requiring regular COVID-19 testing for staff are in line with the latest CDC guidelines for correctional facilities, which recommend routine testing for both staff and incarcerated people who are not fully vaccinated in order to identify infections before they can spread widely. In areas with “substantial” or “high” transmission, the CDC says that testing should be done weekly. All but a few counties in Pennsylvania now meet this criteria.
This kind of screening, while helpful for reducing cases, is just one of many overlapping layers of protection that prisons should be deploying against the coronavirus, says Salmaan Keshavjee, a professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School. Because it can take a few days after a person contracts the virus for a test to be able to detect it, even weekly testing won’t catch every infection before it has a chance to spread. Routine testing and other mitigation measures are like slices of “swiss cheese,” Keshavjee says: each one has holes that the other slices cover up when layered together.
He says that testing should be combined with efforts like social distancing, enhanced sanitation, increasing vaccination rates, and infrastructure improvements like virus-killing UV lights and better ventilation.
"It is one important layer in that multilayered approach,” Keshavjee says.
He also stresses that reducing the number of people behind bars continues to be one of the most important things that can be done to slow down the virus, given the devastating speed with which it spreads in prisons.
"That is an immediate way to lower the number of people an infected person could infect."
The Prison Society once again calls on all counties that haven’t done so to implement weekly, rapid testing of all staff that come into contact with people in custody until they are vaccinated.
We also continue to calls on all state and county officials to: