At least 4,893 incarcerated or detained people have contracted Covid-19, and at least 88 have died, according to a report released Wednesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The numbers are almost certainly an undercount, but they underscore just how vulnerable the nation’s jails and prisons are to coronavirus outbreaks. At least 2,778 staff members have tested positive, too, resulting in 15 deaths, according to the report.
The findings are based on data from 37 state and territorial health departments. The CDC reached out to 54 jurisdictions, but about 30% did not provide requested information on jails and prisons.
Still, the CDC found that 420 correctional or detention facilities across the United States have reported infections – resulting in at least 491 coronavirus-related hospitalizations among inmates and 79 hospitalizations among staff. Researchers looked at cases reported through April 21.
“Approximately one half of facilities with COVID-19 cases reported them among staff members but not among incarcerated persons,” the report said. “Because staff members move between correctional facilities and their communities daily, they might be an important source of virus introduction into facilities.”
The report called for regular screening of staff members and those who enter jails and prisons. But researchers noted that infected people can show no symptoms, suggesting “symptom screening alone is inadequate to promptly identify and isolate infected persons in congregate settings such as correctional and detention facilities.”
Physical distancing, movement restrictions, face coverings and increased cleaning are all recommended, the report said. It also noted that some jurisdictions have implemented “decompression strategies” to reduce crowding in jails and prisons – reducing or eliminating bail, for example, and releasing people to home confinement or community supervision.
The researchers behind the report emphasized that they could be underestimating infections. Only 69% of jurisdictions reported data, they said, so “these results are not representative of the entire United States.”
Many facilities also don’t test staff members, so they rely on workers self-reporting their diagnoses, the report said. And some health departments only received data from state prisons – missing information from local jails and federal or privately operated facilities.
Differences in testing between states also could have influenced the number of reported cases, researchers said.