Prisons announce mass COVID-19 testing at Caswell Correctional after news investigation

Prisons announce mass COVID-19 testing at Caswell Correctional after news investigation
Caswell Correctional Center as seen from this snapshot by Google Earth (Source: Google Earth)

North Carolina prison officials announced Friday that they will test all inmates at Caswell Correctional Center for COVID-19, with results expected next week.

The announcement comes a little more than a week after a network of journalists across the state revealed that a nurse who worked at the prison died of the virus. Officials also announced the extension of a voluntary testing program for prison staff earlier this week.

In a release early Friday afternoon, a prison spokesperson said they would test all 420 inmates at Caswell. He later said in a phone interview that infectious disease staff from the Division of Prisons is conducting the testing.

“Data and previous experience at Neuse Correctional Institution prompted the decision to test all offenders at the facility,” the release said.

Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, a public health researcher at the UNC School of Medicine, has been tracking COVID-19 cases in prisons around the country. Only doing mass testing when an outbreak is imminent is harmful to people who are incarcerated and to staff, she said.

“This slow trickle of cases where they're testing one person who’s symptomatic, the next person who's symptomatic, and now it looks like we have a full-blown outbreak, is really just unacceptable,” Brinkley-Rubinstein said. “That means that, you know, the signs that this was spreading have been documented and clear for what looks like maybe at least a month now.”

The reporting network, which includes journalists from seven North Carolina newsrooms, previously reported that the Caswell County health director offered on-site mass testing for all inmates and staff as early as mid-April.

State prison leadership turned down that request, instead opting for optional off-site testing for staff that began more than two weeks later.

As of last week, prison officials said inmates would continue to be tested on a case-by-case basis if they presented with COVID-19 symptoms.

The release Friday said a total of 19 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 at the prison. Data released by the state showed 11 offenders had tested positive as of Thursday. But inconsistencies between reports of inmates testing positive from the Caswell County Health Department and the Department of Public Safety show that the state’s public numbers are not up to date.

“An additional factor in the decision to test the entire Caswell Correctional offender population: Previous symptom-based testing has revealed positive results in offenders housed in 12 of the prison’s 14 dormitories,” the release said. “This is an indication the virus is not confined to limited sections of the prison.”

A nurse at the prison, Barbara Stewart, died of COVID-19 on May 7. State prison officials did not announce Stewart’s death publicly and, initially, refused to confirm a staff member had died until pressed by a reporter last week.

N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, whose district includes Caswell County, demanded documents related to Stewart’s death and answers to a list of questions in response to the network’s previous reporting.

The announcement about testing at Caswell Correctional early Friday afternoon comes the same day as Berger’s deadline for prison leaders to answer questions and provide documents.

Pat Ryan, a spokesperson with Berger’s office, said the senator had not yet received answers as of early Friday afternoon.

Prison officials also announced this week that they planned to extend voluntary testing for all employees in the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice until July 31. The partnership between DPS, FastMed Urgent Care and LabCorp, which began May 18, gives workers the option to show up to specific urgent care centers across the state to receive testing.

That plan was originally only available for two weeks, a limitation that drew criticism from the State Employees Association of North Carolina, the organization that represents state workers.

In a release Thursday, state prison leadership said testing will be available at all FastMed locations statewide starting June 1.

This story was jointly reported and edited by Kate Martin, Jordan Wilkie and Frank Taylor, of Carolina Public Press; Gavin Off, Ames Alexander and Doug Miller, of The Charlotte Observer; Dan Kane, of The News & Observer; Nick Ochsner, of WBTV; Emily Featherston, of WECT; Tyler Dukes of WRAL; and Jason deBruyn, of WUNC-FM.

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