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State Starts Widespread Testing at Select Prison Facilities

Technicians at the DCCS laboratory.
Technicians at the DCCS laboratory. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

CORECTION: Dr. Trey Fuller's name was misspelled; it has been corrected. We have also corrected a paragraph that suggested incarcerated people and staff were being tested at multiple facilities.

The Virginia Department of Corrections has started testing all inmates and employees at select facilities. It’s an effort to get ahead of asymptomatic cases, but also to track how coronavirus spreads in prison settings. 

What they’re seeing is high rates of people testing positive who didn’t have any symptoms. 

“Somewhere between 40 and 80 percent of the people that we test, even though they have no symptoms, appear healthy, have no indication for testing,” said Dr. Trey Fuller, assistant director of health services for VADOC. “And that is probably the same thing as what’s happening in the community.”

The department worked with Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia, and the Virginia Department of Health to ramp up testing. 

As of Monday night, 434 people who are incarcerated at state-run correctional facilities have been tested for COVID-19. A total of 170 inmates and 53 prison employees have tested positive for the virus and one inmate has died. There are roughly 30,000 people in state custody in Virginia. 

The department had previously only tested those with symptoms. 

Last week, the department started testing all inmates at Harrisonburg Men’s Diversion Center and Haynesville Correctional Center. Dr. Fuller said everyone, including staff, will now be tested at Deerfield Correctional Center, which has a large at-risk population. 

“The purpose is really to see how it spreads throughout a prison or a long-term care setting like a nursing home and see if that can inform the way we’re doing business at all,” Fuller said.  

But advocates insist VADOC should do more widespread testing.

“Our view is they ought to be available at all facilities,” said Clair Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.  “And they ought to be testing every staff person who comes in the place to make sure that they’re not allowing people who are positive into the facility in the first place.”

Fuller said the tests are a snapshot in time, which means an inmate could test negative and contract the virus days or even hours later. 

“At some point, the labs just won’t have the capacity to test 12,000 staff and 30,000 inmates every three days,” he said. 

Fuller said when the data comes back from Deerfield, similar tests will likely be done at other facilities that are experiencing outbreaks. 

According to the latest figures from the state health department, 13 of the 139 outbreaks in Virginia are in correctional facilities.