During COVID-19, correctional facilities faced a challenge: close quarters provided the perfect environment for viral outbreaks
Prisons and jails across the country began releasing low risk offenders to mitigate widespread outbreaks. Estimates indicate that 20% of inmates across the nation contracted COVID-19 by the end of 2020, compared to just 5% of the rest of the population.
One corrections department in Kentucky took a progressive approach to create a safe environment
From the beginning, Laurel County Correctional Center did everything it could to avoid COVID-19 infections among inmates and staff. Jailer Jamie Mosley was especially concerned because he’s responsible for over 800 county, state, and federal inmates.
To prevent onsite spread, Laurel County began using electrostatic disinfectant sprayers to sanitize cells, provided antibacterial body wash and hand sanitizer to inmates, and implemented a testing protocol with rapid antigen tests. Supply challenges posed a problem, however. “We were using rapid antigen COVID-19 tests from retail stores and pharmacies, but they were difficult to find,” Mosley said.
With rapid-antigen tests in short supply and individualized social distancing not an option, Laurel County took up a group quarantine model. Mosley explained, “if we had several male inmates brought in within the same 24-hour period, we would quarantine them together for two weeks whether they tested positive for COVID-19 or not.”
Jailer Jamie Mosley, Laurel County Correctional Center
“I think that we have proven with the right approach you can almost create a more sterile environment here within a facility than you can in the public. But you’ve got to do it right.”
Transitioning to rapid PCR tests eliminated the need to isolate new inmates
The Accula system is small, mobile, and easy to use, providing a fast, accurate testing solution even for facilities that don’t have a dedicated lab or medical space.
Laurel County’s isolation protocol took up lots of space, making it difficult to continue long term. Lab-based tests were not a viable option, either. “It wasn't timely enough to really allow us to get ahead of the situation,” said Mosley. “After two days, the inmate has been sharing a cell with someone else, and they've potentially exposed other inmates and correctional officers who come into contact with many, many more people.”
To address the space and efficiency challenges of Laurel County’s initial isolation strategy, the team adopted a testing protocol centered around Thermo Fisher Scientific's Accula SARS-CoV-2 Test. This small, portable, palm-sized system plugs into a standard outlet to process samples onsite and deliver reliable results in about 30 minutes.
With rapid PCR, Laurel County found a more efficient model for managing the pandemic
Now, Laurel County can accurately test inmates when they arrive and as they come and go for doctor's appointments, court hearings, or other offsite travels. Certified medical assistants and licensed nurses use a medical examination area adjacent to booking to test inmates.
Facilities without a designated testing area can still follow Laurel County’s model, as Accula doesn’t take up much space and comes with easy-to-follow Instructions for Use.
Studies show correctional staff including officers, healthcare workers and administrative staff are at high risk for occupational infections.Risks are not limited to onsite staff, however. Transport drivers, courthouse staff, counselors, case managers and legal team members are also in frequent contact with prisoners.
Rapid PCR testing proves a smart investment in inmate welfare
Mosley concedes standing up a robust testing program for a large population can be expensive, but Laurel County funded its testing without using tax dollars. Instead, the facility’s budget includes a line for inmate welfare from commissary profits. “It felt like one of the best investments we could make,” said Mosley.
While Mosley expects COVID-19 to become a liability issue for correctional facilities, that wasn’t his motivating reason for adopting rapid PCR testing. “In all honesty, we're just doing it because it's the right thing to do,” he explained. “Other facilities in Kentucky had correctional officers pass away from COVID-19. Multiple inmates have passed away. What’s the cost of a life?”
In jails and prisons where a single infection can easily turn into an outbreak, COVID-19 will likely remain an issue.
Despite the ongoing threat, Mosley feels confident in Laurel County’s ability to control the spread. “I think that we have proven with the right approach you can almost create a more sterile environment here within a facility than you can in the public. But you’ve got to do it right.”
Other case studies
Disclaimer: This Accula SARS-CoV-2 Test has not been FDA cleared or approved but has been authorized for emergency use by FDA for use by laboratories certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) of 1988, 42 U.S.C. §263a, that meet requirements to perform high, moderate, or waived complexity tests. The test is authorized for use at the Point of Care (POC), i.e., in patient care settings operating under a CLIA Certificate of Waiver, Certificate of Compliance, or Certificate of Accreditation. This test has been authorized only for the detection of nucleic acid from SARS-CoV-2, not for any other viruses or pathogens. The emergency use of this test is only authorized for the duration of the declaration that circumstances exist justifying the authorization of emergency use of in vitro diagnostics for detection and/or diagnosis of COVID-19 under Section 564(b)(1) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. § 360bbb-3(b)(1), unless the declaration is terminated or authorization is revoked sooner.
For Use under the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) Only. For prescription use only. For in vitro diagnostic use.