COVID-19 positive cases spike in U.P. correctional facility

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UPPER PENINSULA, Mich. (WJMN) – According to the spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), Michigan is one of the few states in the country doing mass COVID-19 testing on every prisoner in its system.

Out of the six correctional facilities in the Upper Peninsula, only two facilities have had positive cases within the prisoner population. But over the last week, Newberry Correctional Facility in Luce County has seen a spike in case numbers.

On August 1, the Newberry Correctional Facility had its first staff member test positive for COVID-19; on August 5, the first prisoner tested positive. As of August 11, the facility stands at 32 positive prisoner cases.

“If a prisoner tests positive, it’s a little different at Newberry compared to other facilities,” said Chris Gautz, spokesperson for MDOC. “What’s happening right now in Newberry is we’ve identified and opened a section of a housing unit where all prisoners who have tested positive are going to be moved to that one housing unit. They’re going to stay there and remain isolated from the rest of the prisoner population. Anything they do, they’ll move as a group. They won’t have any connection with staff or prisoners outside of that unit.”

Mass testing was done at Baraga Correctional Facility last month after a handful of staff members tested positive. Test results showed that no prisoner tests came back positive for the virus. Back in April, MDOC tested prisoners in all facilities within the system.

However, Gautz said that the vast majority of positive cases in Michigan correctional facilities have been asymptomatic.

“These last few cases, both in Newberry and at Muskegon, where we had our last most recent outbreak, we currently have no prisoners in the hospital, nobody’s on a ventilator. So the cases that we’ve seen in the last few weeks at several facilities have not been very serious, so thankfully the prisoners are all doing well that have tested positive, and again it was a surprise for some of them because they didn’t feel any different.”

Prisoners who test positive will be isolated for 14 days, and must test negative before moving to the next “step-down phase”. This next phase means they are no longer infected but they are continuously being monitored for symptoms. After thirty days, the prisoner would be considered “recovered” status and move back into the general prison population. MDOC transfers more vulnerable inmates, such as the elderly, to downstate facilities to be closer to the department’s health center.

Gautz said limiting the number of prisoner transfers to other facilities has helped limit the spread. Pre-COVID, MDOC typically transferred about 2,500 prisoners every month. Now the department transfers about 300 prisoners every month. MDOC has also stopped transferring prisoners from downstate facilities to the Upper Peninsula.

Staff members and prisoners are required to wear masks within the facilities.

“We remind our staff and prisoners every day that this is not the time to be complacent. Wearing a mask is still critically important, being socially distant inside the facility at all times is also important, and that masks are not a replacement for social distancing.”

As for testing accessibility and supply numbers, MDOC has not had any issues with getting testing kits for its facilities. MDOC has been working with state and private labs for testing.

For a full list of test results for each correctional facility in Michigan, you can visit MDOC’s website.

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