The Maine Department of Corrections on Tuesday announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the state prison system – emphasis on “confirmed.”

Up to that point, only 27 adults and five youths among the more than 1,900 individuals incarcerated in Maine had been tested for the disease. It’s impossible to know whether the Corrections Department missed anyone who was presenting no or only minor symptoms, a large portion of those who get the coronavirus.

The state is now conducting tests of the nearly 700 inmates and staff at Maine Correctional Center in Windham, where an inmate in his 20s tested positive this week. As of Friday, 163 staff members and inmates had been tested, with no additional positives.

But officials are opting not to conduct universal testing across all state correctional facilities, so any as-yet-unidentified cases in those prisons will remain unidentified. The only thing one can say about that with any certainty is that it carries great risk.

From the start of the outbreak, correctional facilities have been singled out as particularly vulnerable, along with other settings where physical distancing is difficult, such as nursing homes and food-processing facilities. And that’s where many of the hot spots have been centered.

In response, populations at Maine’s county jails, where most of the inmates are awaiting trial, have been greatly reduced.

But prison officials have been less eager to release people to home confinement. Prisons remain a place where distancing and hygiene pose significant problems, and where staff has to go in and out every day. They remain highly vulnerable to an outbreak.

Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said this week that his employees are following all necessary safety protocols. Yet even under those precautions, the coronavirus found its way in.

Because officials wait until someone in prison shows symptoms before they test everyone, the virus has a chance to spread. If the state would test every inmate and staff member now, as inmates, advocates and two prison unions have suggested, it could catch an outbreak before it happens.

Gov. Mills has said that with its new testing capacity, the state will conduct such testing in nursing homes, where many of Maine’s cases and deaths have occurred. Prior to the increase, it was the state’s policy to only test once the virus had spread within a facility.

Maine has been one of the more aggressive states when it comes to nursing home testing. Still, universal testing in nursing homes could have stopped some outbreaks and prevented deaths. But with tens of thousands of residents and staff statewide, and testing scarce, it wasn’t logistically possible, and will still be a challenge.

Universal testing for prisons, with about 3,000 inmates and staff, would be an easier lift, though there are other considerations.

For one, moving forward, the state must make sure it retains enough testing capacity to quickly react when a new case is found, so that it can test every person who came into contact with the newly infected person.

Also, there is a question of how often to test. Just one round would be of limited usefulness, as new chances for infection occur every day.

The state says it is following federal guidance. However, a federal report published last week concluded that screening by symptoms alone is “inadequate to promptly identify and isolate infected persons in congregate settings such as correctional and detention facilities.”

Maryland committed this week to testing every person incarcerated there. New Jersey will test the 18,000 inmates in its system.

Maine doesn’t have nearly the problem with COVID-19 that those two states do. Universal testing in prisons, as well as in other congregate settings, would help keep it that way.


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