COVID-19 outbreak at Elmira prison tops 550 cases. How New York is responding.
As the COVID-19 outbreak at the Elmira Correctional Facility hit 556 cases, New York state has been using rapid tests and pursuing contact-tracing to limit the coronavirus' spread both inside and outside the prison walls, state officials said Monday.
The comments came after the Southern Tier prison has become the hardest-hit site within the state correctional system, which was reporting about 700 active cases among its more than 36,000 inmates, according to state officials and state data.
The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision last week closed the Elmira prison facility to visitors in response to the outbreak.
About 70% of the entire prison system's population had been tested as of Monday, with the remaining 30% expected to be tested by the end of November, said Melissa DeRosa, a top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
"We’re taking this very seriously and taking the health and safety of both the prison population and prison officers as seriously as we could," she said during a press briefing.
State health officials noted many of the coronavirus infections in Elmira prison are asymptomatic cases, and suspect the virus was introduced to the facility by visitors or corrections officers who contracted it due to community spread outside the prison, DeRosa said.
Elmira prison is in Chemung County and is part of the uptick in COVID-19 cases across the Southern Tier, which last week had two counties, Chemung and Steuben, placed under new restrictions on activity under the state's cluster containment strategy.
How many COVID cases in NY prisons?
During the pandemic, there had been 1,455 prison workers infected with COVID-19, including five confirmed deaths as of Friday, the most recent state data show.
Among the inmate population, there have been 1,434 inmates infected with the virus, including 18 deaths, the data show. A total of 105 parolees have had COVID-19, including four deaths.
The Elmira prison had 556 cases confirmed as of Monday, including 22 people who had recovered, a state corrections official said. It had 21 tests for coronavirus pending at the time.
"Currently, no individuals who have tested positive at Elmira have required a transfer to an outside hospital, as the majority of the positive test results are asymptomatic," Thomas Mailey, an agency spokesman, said in a statement Monday.
The correctional facility had a population of about 1,500 as of 2018, according to an audit.
The next highest case count was at Greene Correctional facility, with 132 total positive tests, of which 32 people had recovered. It had zero COVID deaths.
Greene Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County had 129 positive COVID tests, of which 129 people had recovered, the data show. It had three COVID deaths.
Prison-reform advocates have been urging Cuomo to grant clemency to many older prisoners who are more susceptible to COVID-19's potentially deadly effects.
Several groups, including the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, are planning a rally outside the Elmira prison on Tuesday.
Among their demands, the groups are demanding Cuomo grant clemency to "vulnerable people without excluding broad categories of people based on crime of convictions" and grant parole to similarly vulnerable prisoners who are eligible.
DeRosa noted all state prisons within communities under new COVID "hot spot" restrictions would ban visitors as part of precautions going forward.
She added that bunk beds have been "debunked" to address density issues in prisons with COVID cases, apparently referring to physically separating beds but keeping inmates in shared cells.
The state corrections department has detailed a number of safety policies implemented during the pandemic to address concerns about prisons and jails.
Among the rules:
- Mandating all staff to wear face masks while on duty.
- Supplying all inmates with surgical-type masks.
- Supplying inmates subject to isolation and quarantine with surgical-type masks.
- Allowing the inmates to use state-issued handkerchiefs as masks.
- Releasing low-level technical parole violators from local jails
The facilities are also using enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols, including supplying hand sanitizer to inmates and staff.
How many inmates has NY released amid COVID
At the behest of Cuomo, state corrections department officials have permitted thousands of early releases of inmates based on reviews of each case to ensure they receive appropriate services and support in the community, according to the governor's office.
Among the 3,055 inmates released early as of Monday:
- 791 people who have had their low-level parole violations cancelled.
- 2,252 people who were committed on non-violent, non-sex offenses and were within 90 days of their approved release date.
- 12 women who were pregnant or postpartum, committed on non-violent, non-sex offenses, and were within 180 days of their approved release date.
The total incarcerated population in state correctional facilities is currently 36,066 people, a total reduction of more than 8,000 inmates from and the lowest total in state prisons since 1986, the governor's office noted.
The number also represents a 50% decline in population since the high of 72,773 inmates in 1999.
Ashley Biviano of USA TODAY Network contributed to this report.
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