No timeline for mass coronavirus testing in NC’s prisons

Updated: May. 8, 2020 at 4:40 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – There is no timeline for if or when mass COVID-19 testing will be conducted for inmates or staff at North Carolina’s prisons, even as cases of the virus continue to rise inside prisons across the state.

The lack of a plan was revealed after North Carolina State Treasurer Dale Folwell announced early this week that the State Health Plan would not be able to test all prison staff, as had been previously announced.

“FDA-approved tests will be used to test more than 16,000 corrections officers and other employees at the state’s 56 correctional institutions over the next few weeks,” Folwell’s office announced in a release on April 22.

But, after weeks without movement on the plan, Folwell announced the testing would not move forward in a follow-up release on Monday, citing “logistical and personnel concerns” from DPS.

“We’re disappointed that we could not work out the details on how to go directly to the facilities outside of the fence to test,” Folwell said in Monday’s release.

There have been confirmed cases of COVID-19 in at least 16 prisons across the state, according to documents reviewed by WBTV.

In an interview on Thursday, the head of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, Ardis Watkins, told WBTV that the plan to test all prison staff was scrapped because prison administrators feared too many staff members would be out of work if they tested positive.

Watkins said prison leaders feared “that they would end up without enough staff and they said, you know, they would have to come up with a plan for that.”

Watkins said she participated in phone calls with staff from the State Health Plan and senior leadership within the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, including Chief Deputy Secretary Tim Moose and Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee.

“The prison leadership stopped the plan to test all of its employees because they were afraid of what the answer might be?” a WBTV reporter asked Watkins.

“Well, that’s the way it felt to us,” she replied.

Previous: NC’s prisons have continued transferring inmates, holding worship services during coronavirus pandemic

“Our suggestion was: let’s test them,” Watkins continued. “So you know what you’re dealing with and give the employees the right to know.”

In an interview with WBTV on Thursday, Moose, the DPS chief deputy secretary over corrections, pushed back on Watkins’ assertion.

“Prisons was not scared of doing testing, scared of finding gout results or anything like that,” Moose said.

But, minutes later, during the same interview, Moose acknowledged staffing was a concern.

“When Ardis Watkins says that you and Commissioner Ishee expressed concerns about the number of staff that would have to be out of work, is she lying?” a WBTV reporter asked Moose.

“The number of staff, in terms of staffing and staffing formulas is always a concern,” Moose responded.

“Prisons leadership has to be focused on staffing and running the system and maintaining our public safety responsibility. That was just one of the many concerns that was stressed as we continue to meet.”

So far, mass testing has only been conducted on all inmates and all staff at one prison in North Carolina: Neuse Correctional Institution.

More than half of the offenders tested at Neuse were positive for COVID-19, many of them without symptoms, DPS has previously said.

Moose could not articulate a reason why more mass testing had not been done for staff or inmates at other prisons.

“We are working with our partners on when it is clinically indicated to test,” Moose said, explaining that an inmate is tested when they show symptoms and have a negative flu test.

But Moose could not elaborate on why just one of the state’s 55 prisons had seen mass testing for COVID-19.

“Well, again, we’re following the guidelines and working with our partners at DHHS and health departments across the state and when it’s clinically indicated, we’ve gone in and done mass testing of the offenders,” Moose said.

“Why are you testing en masse at one facility but not any of the others?” a WBTV reporter asked.

“Well, I know it’s not an answer I can, uh—it’s not clinically indicated to do so at those other facilities at this time,” Moose responded.

“What does that mean?” the reporter asked.

“It means not clinically indicated,” Moose replied, without elaborating further.

On Friday, Governor Roy Cooper and DPS Secretary Erik Hooks fielded multiple questions from reporters at a press conference about testing at state prisons.

Reporters were told DPS continues to be in talks with the State Health Plan regarding testing but neither Cooper nor Hooks could provide specifics on what those discussions entail and Moose could not provide any on Thursday, either.

“We’re working together to find that right solution to provide testing for all of our employees,” Moose told WBTV.

The lack of planning comes as plans are underway to resume transfers of inmates between prison facilities, which had been suspended in early April following a WBTV investigation.

“There is a possibility internal movements (offenders moving from one facility to another) will begin to take place on May 17th,” a prison administrator said in an email to staff at Piedmont Correctional Institution on May 1.

But, in his interview, Moose claimed to have no knowledge of any plans to resume transfers.

“Well, there’s not a plan that’s in place at this point to do any kind of wide-scale transferring,” Moose said.

“Do you feel comfortable starting transfers again on May 17 knowing there has not been wide-scale testing?” a reporter asked.

“I’m not sure what you’re referring to, what those emails might be and what that might be about,” Moose responded.

For Watkins, who represents the thousands of men and women who go to work inside prisons every day, her membership will not be safe until mass testing is carried out at prisons across the state.

“In an institutional setting, I don’t think there’s any question: you have to go in there and you have to test everybody. And the tests need to be performed by professionals,” Watkins said. Until that’s done, no, there’s no way I think anyone is safe.”

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