As mass coronavirus testing expands in U.S. prisons, the results are revealing a shocking truth about the virus — large numbers of infected inmates are showing no symptoms.
In four state prison systems -- Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia -- 96% of the over 3,200 inmates who tested positive for the coronavirus were asymptomatic. That’s according to interviews with officials and records reviewed by Reuters.
The numbers are the latest evidence to suggest that people who are asymptomatic — contagious but not physically sick -- may be driving the spread of the virus, not only in state prisons, but also in communities across the globe.
The figures also reinforce questions over whether testing only people suspected of being infected is actually capturing the spread of the virus.
Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, says that prisons are a ticking time bomb.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS LYNDON B JOHNSON SCHOOL OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS SENIOR LECTURER, MICHELE DEITCH, SAYING:"
Prisons and jails are petri dishes for the spread of the COVID virus. They are very densely populated. They don't have sufficient hygiene protocols and people in custody don't have ready access to hand-washing stations or hand sanitizer or masks. And there is no meaningful ability to socially distance within those facilities. So all the protections we have in the free world are not available inside the walls, behind the walls….Most states have not started mass testing of people in custody, and they've limited testing to those people who are showing very serious symptoms. And yet we know from the experts that in our free world communities that mass testing is absolutely necessary for getting a handle on this outbreak."
The United States has more people behind bars than any other nation, a total incarcerated population of nearly 2.3 million as of 2017.
Chris Gautz is the spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections, and says the mass testing of inmates is revealing some troubling realities.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS SPOKESPERSON, CHRIS GAUTZ, SAYING:
“This is a new step that we're taking and the numbers are quite troubling. It just shows you how contagious this disease can be and how quickly it can spread unknowingly with people who don't have any symptoms."
As the coronavirus spreads behind bars, rights groups and public defenders say they fear more will succumb, and have pressed for the release of nonviolent older and medically high-risk inmates. While thousands have been let out, crowded, often unsanitary conditions have raised concerns that jails and prisons could become vectors for the disease.