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Berkeley Public Health and UCSF partner to limit COVID-19 in correctional settings

COVID-19 cases have ballooned in jails and prisons across the United States. In mid-March the first COVID-19 cases in correctional settings emerged in New York City, Cook County, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. As of June 29, 2020, there were more than 48,000 known cases among incarcerated people in the United States (not including correctional staff). At Marin County’s San Quentin State Prison, there were 871 inmates testing positive for COVID-19 as of June 29.

The full extent of the epidemic inside U.S. jails and prisons is unknown as the country’s three largest prison systems have tested less than one percent of their inmates. However, it is clear that correctional facilities share the same congregate living environment that has made nursing homes an epicenter of COVID-19 spread in the country.

To combat this situation, UC Berkeley School of Public Health and Amend at UCSF—a group working on transforming correctional culture and reducing debilitating health issues in prisons and jails—partnered together to document and assess the capacity of California state prisons to respond to COVID-19 and provide recommendations that prioritize the dignity, health, and wellbeing of currently incarcerated people, staff, and surrounding communities.

The Berkeley Public Health component of the Amend COVID in California Prisons Program is led by Berkeley Public Health Dean Emeritus Stefano Bertozzi in collaboration with Sandra McCoy, associate professor of epidemiology, and includes Drew Cameron, Catherine Duarte, and Ada Kwan, all doctoral candidates in Health Policy and Management and Epidemiology.

The team first issued guidance on how to limit COVID-19 in correctional settings in a  memo sent out May 4, 2020. The team stressed the urgency of the impending problem. “As the COVID-19 epidemic sweeps into correctional institutions around the nation, these critical actions must be urgently prioritized by system and political leaders in order to avert a health and humanitarian disaster among incarcerated people and the law enforcement, health, and administrative professionals who work in corrections: population reduction, cohorting, testing, isolation and quarantine.”

Detailed recommendations included, but were not limited to:

  • Releasing certain prisoners from facilities operating at, or above, bed capacity;
  • breaking cohorts of prisoners into mini-communities to slow spread;
  • disinfecting all shared indoor spaces;
  • rapidly scaling up testing;
  • restricting non-essential movement in and out of facilities; and
  • providing staff and inmates with education on COVID-19, including how it spreads and common measures to reduce spread.

The group was subsequently invited to visit San Quentin California State Prison in mid-June, where they found multiple vulnerabilities. In a June 15, 2020, memo, the team outlined recommendations—included creating a COVID outbreak emergency response team; the central importance of reducing  overcrowding through decarceration; increasing testing and reducing the turnaround time for results; and developing plans to protect the health and wellbeing of  incarcerated persons and staff—to prevent a full-blown local epidemic and health care crisis in the prison and surrounding communities.

On June 13, 2020, there were 16 inmates at San Quentin who’d tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, the infection rate at San Quentin has skyrocketed, with almost 900 positive cases reported as of June 29.