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Omicron hits Michigan's prisons, which rank second in nation for COVID cases

Sarah Rahal and Neal Rubin, The Detroit News on

Published in News & Features

Michigan's prison system is among the highest case rates in the nation because the department is doing more testing than other states, Gautz said. The state has tested more inmates than any other at 1.2 million, according to data by the COVID Prison Project. It is followed by Illinois with 912,430 tests and Texas with 893,373 tests.

"Because we do more testing, we get lumped in with state comparisons, and we end up looking like the outsider for mass testing of prisoners," he said. "We have to continuously test to know where it's popping up and protect our population from the potential spread."

Researchers, meanwhile, argue overcrowding and lax protocols in prisons and jails haven't changed enough in the 22 months of the pandemic — whether in Michigan or other states. Michigan's prisons are also experiencing mass vacancies of correctional officers and nurses, among other staff, which are compounded by quarantining officers infected by COVID.

"Jails and prisons continue to be overlooked relevant to mitigation resources," said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, associate professor of social medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill and the lead investigator and co-founder of the COVID Prison Project.

"Not enough testing capacity is on hand in most carceral facilities. Ongoing vaccination and booster plans are necessary. Many carceral systems deployed one-time or short-term vaccine campaigns and then abandoned them. But long-term planning is necessary."

Nearly 70% of the state's roughly 32,200 inmates are fully vaccinated and 10,000 booster doses have been distributed, as of Friday, Gautz said. That vaccination rate is higher than Michigan's general population at 57%. The situation is not unique to Michigan.

 

Since the beginning of the pandemic in Michigan, the Egeler Reception Center has recorded the most cases at 3,759 and currently has 148 active cases. The most inmate deaths from the virus at a single facility, 25, occurred at Lakeland Correctional in Coldwater.

The Egeler Reception Center is visited by every adult man who's sentenced to prison, and it's home to the state's largest prison health center, Gautz said.

Five inmates are hospitalized with the virus, and they are unvaccinated, he said.

Since March 2020, the COVID Prison Project has tracked 2,740 inmate deaths and 256 staff deaths across the nation from the virus. The project is a group of public health scientists who created a public database on the status of COVID-19 within the nation's correctional facilities.

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