COVID-19 Prison Infections 5.5 Times Higher Than National Rate: Study

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COVID-19 infection rates among prisoners have been 5.5 times higher than the U.S. population case rate, according to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The confinement of incarcerated individuals in tight spaces, the difficulties in keeping prison environments clean, and limited access to masks and personal protective equipment are among the reasons that cases of the disease are “substantially higher and escalating” much more rapidly in prisons compared to the US population, JAMA said.

The higher infection rate has also translated to a higher death rate, the study found. 

To complete the JAMA study, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project analyzed coronavirus case data from March 31 to June 6 with a focus on federal and state prisons in all 50 states and Washington D.C.

Supplemental data  — including active confirmed cases, recoveries, and deaths — also came from news reports documenting outbreaks wherever systematic data was lacking. 

Infection and Death Rates

In prison, the mean daily case infection growth rate was 8.3 percent compared to an infection rate of 3.4 percent among the general U.S. population.

The crude COVID-19 death rate in prisons was 39 deaths per 100, 000 prisoners, which was higher than the U.S. population rate of 29 deaths per 100, 000 people, the report found. 

After adjusting for age and gender distributions compared to the prison populations to make them equal, the researchers found that the death rate in prison is three times higher than that of the outside world. 

More Testing, More Data

The JAMA researchers acknowledge that their data has limitations, considering that it is largely reliant on self-reporting. Many facilities don’t have mass testing capabilities and other prisons are only testing inmates who present symptoms

This testing methodology misses the asymptomatic coronavirus carriers, resulting in missing data that could further illuminate the crisis, the report outlines.  

However, now that some facilities are adopting mass testing, those facilities are reporting infection rates that exceed 65 percent. This should be alarming, and a spur to take action, according to JAMA. 

The JAMA researchers recommended a more systematic and inclusive approach to COVID-19 testing behind bars, adding that it’s unlikely that we “understand the true prevalence of COVID-19 in prisons.”

They called for an increase in testing and more transparency. 

“Although some facilities did engage in efforts to control outbreaks,” the JAMA researchers concluded, “the findings suggest that overall, COVID-19 in US prisons is unlikely to be contained without implementation of more effective infection control.

Brendan Saloner, Ph.D., the study’s lead author, conducts his research at the Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The other researchers were: Kalind Parish, who conducts data and content moderating research with the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project; and Julie A. Ward, a registered nurse and professor at the Oregon Health & Science University.

The full report can be accessed here. Additional Reading: COVID-19 Spurs Call to Reform Prison Health Care

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