SCI Pine Grove

SCI Pine Grove

A spike in COVID-19 infections among inmates and staff at State Correctional Institution Pine Grove has triggered reassignment of prisoners in their housing units and isolation of those with illness.

The infection rate at the White Township prison rose more than 500 percent, according to figures on the state Department of Corrections’ online COVID-19 dashboard and numbers released by a DOC media representative.

The website on Monday showed Pine Grove with 10 active cases among inmates and five among employees but, confirming reports to the Gazette by prison workers who asked to not be named, DOC spokeswoman Sue McNaughton said Tuesday that the prison has 62 active inmate cases and six employee cases.  (The website today was updated to show 29 infected inmates at the local prison.)

Inmates free of the virus have been separated from those who have tested positive, all are confined to their cells, and the prison staff has been conducting “a deep cleaning of the entire prison,” McNaughton said.

The aggressive separation of inmates to halt spread of the virus is considered a lockdown, she said.

“Yes, to manage this virus, officials do place impacted units on what we call enhanced quarantine. We must act quickly and aggressively to contain the virus, and lockdowns do play a role in this mitigation,” McNaughton said.

“As part of enhanced quarantine, inmates are kept in small cohorts or groups, and the make-up of those groups never changes. Sometimes the cohorts are as small as one cell — or two inmates. Staff works to get the cohorts out of their cells one cohort at a time to allow for showers, phone calls and reading emails.

“Finally, when cases present themselves, our prisons implement a 72-hour lockdown to immediately deep clean the entire prison. This helps us to get unaffected housing units back to normal.

“We believe in acting quickly and aggressively to mitigate the virus’ impact on our facilities. When we have cases like this, we isolate and quarantine inmates appropriately, and employees cannot return to work until cleared by their doctors,” McNaughton told the Gazette.

Greater numbers of prisoners with COVID-19 are shown at several other prisons, according to the DOC dashboard page. SCI Somerset registered 53 inmates and 10 staffers with positive cases today; SCI Coal Township near Bloomsburg has 104 infected inmates and five staff with COVID-19; SCI Camp Hill outside Harrisburg today as 14 inmates and 24 corrections workers with coronavirus; and SCI Chester near Philadelphia has 80 inmates and 31 employees under care for COVID-19.

McNaughton said the state prison system has begun a wastewater monitoring program to detect presence of the virus and started antigen testing of inmates and staffers in response to the wastewater findings.

Wastewater samples are drawn periodically over a 24-hour period, with a total of 5 liters being collected. The sample is then shipped overnight to a Pennsylvania lab, which usually returns results within 72 hours.

A high wastewater virus count last week at SCI Laurel Highlands prompted the antigen testing of 844 inmates and 82 employees; the tests came back positive for 25 inmates (less than 3 percent of the inmate population) and two employees, she reported.

The prison has six infected inmates today and nine virus-stricken employees, the dashboard shows today.

“We conducted this testing because wastewater testing results showed an increase in the viral load at the prison,” said state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said. “SCI Laurel Highlands, based on the fact that it houses medically vulnerable inmates and provides housing and services to inmates who also require personal and long-term care, is of great concern to us.

“We must be proactive and aggressive to manage this virus, and we believe that mass testing at this prison is the best way to get an accurate picture of how many inmates may have the virus. Testing of this inmate population will be ongoing, and updated figures can be obtained on our website’s COVID-19 dashboard.”

The antigen tests err on the side of caution, yielding more false positive results than other tests known for generating false negative findings, according to the Corrections Department statement. Testing results were provided to the DOC’s Bureau of Health Care Services staff, who then used the data to calculate the prevalence of the virus. Immediately upon receiving the test results, facility staff separated inmates based upon negative and positive results for the virus.

Wetzel said positive results may provide advanced warning of asymptomatic individuals as they shed the virus prior to demonstrating any symptoms.

“This is the first mass testing we have done,” Wetzel said. “We waited until we believed we had more accurate tests available to us.”

Wetzel said he expects to continue wastewater sampling throughout the pandemic so prison officials can work to stay ahead of potential outbreaks.

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the county courthouse; Indiana Area and Homer-Center schools; Blairsville, Homer City, Clymer, Center and Burrell; and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.