Prisoners and staff at a state correctional facility in west Michigan are now being tested daily for the coronavirus after the detection of the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant.
The Michigan Department of Corrections said in a notice sent to prisoners and staff this week that a case of the B.1.1.7 variant was confirmed Monday at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia. The variant, which first appeared in the United Kingdom in September, spreads more easily than other previously identified strains.
Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization representing 6,000 corrections officers, said the person with the confirmed case of the variant is a staff member. He said the MDOC has not said whether the employee is an officer or works in a different role at Bellamy Creek.
“Basically, it’s the worst news we could’ve gotten,” Osborn said. “The fact that it’s made its way in but then the additional anxiety and stress that this places on the employees and the prisoner population at this facility.”
Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said Wednesday that additional test results were pending and no other cases of the variant have been confirmed in the prison system.
As of Tuesday, 485 prisoners at Bellamy Creek had tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and 98 of those cases are active infections. One prisoner has died. The department reports that 101 staff at the facility have tested positive throughout the pandemic.
The message that the department sent late Monday said prisoners and employees at Bellamy Creek will be tested daily with a rapid test. If a rapid test result comes back positive, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test will be taken and sent to a state lab for testing for the variant.
This testing regimen will also apply to some prisoners and staff at Duane Waters Health Center in Jackson and Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township. Before the variant was detected at Bellamy Creek, the MDOC transferred several prisoners who had tested positive for the virus and also have comorbidities from the prison in Ionia to Duane Waters and Macomb “so they could have access to appropriate care if they began experiencing more severe symptoms,” the department said. Those prisoners, as well as prisoners and staff in COVID-19 housing units at Macomb and Duane Waters, will be tested daily.
At this time, Gautz said, “it is not the plan” to transfer prisoners with COVID-19 to housing units dedicated to positive cases at other facilities “because right now it’s too risky with this variant out there to be introducing them to anywhere else.” He said facilities are being instructed to have a plan to isolate prisoners positive for the virus on their grounds.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether prisoners who test positive for the variant will be separated from other prisoners with COVID-19 among whom the variant has not been confirmed.
The department said it is working on providing accommodations to staff in the event that they need to isolate from household members.
As of Tuesday, the department reported 24,707 COVID-19 cases among prisoners and 3,521 staff cases across the state since March. There have been 136 prisoner deaths. Four employees have died.
Active infections among the prisoner population are down since the fall, when the number of active COVID-19 cases reached a new high and continued to climb, with more than 7,700 active cases at one point in mid-December. There were 833 active cases among prisoners across the prison system as of Tuesday.
Prisoners and staff are tested weekly at facilities with at least one active case. Per a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the department does not test people as part of its mass testing efforts for 90 days after their initial positive test.
The new daily testing for B.1.1.7 variant surveillance will include people who have tested positive in the past 90 days, according to MDOC’s notice to prisoners and staff.
Michigan’s first case of the variant was confirmed in Washtenaw County in January. There are now 61 known cases of B.1.1.7 in 10 counties, according to information provided Wednesday by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Cases of B.1.1.7 have been confirmed in Calhoun, Charlevoix, Eaton, Kalamazoo, Kent, Macomb, Sanilac, Van Buren, Washtenaw and Wayne counties and the city of Detroit. Cases are tracked by county of residence.
Current data on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines show that they are effective against the B.1.1.7. variant, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said at a news conference Tuesday.
“Viruses change and mutate when they have the opportunity to spread, so getting vaccinated will not only slow the spread of the usual COVID-19 virus, but it will also prevent the virus from getting the opportunity to mutate as it spreads from person to person,” she said.
Under the state’s guidance for prioritization groups, prison staff and incarcerated people 65 and older are currently eligible for the vaccine.
About 4,000 prisoners have received a first dose of the vaccine since late January. Of that number, 1,322 people were 65 or older. The department receives the vaccine in shipments of 100, Gautz said, and any doses remaining after the vaccine has been offered to those who meet the age guideline are then provided to younger prisoners with the greatest health needs.
The department doesn’t know exactly how many employees have gotten the vaccine. Staff who get their shot from a health department aren’t required to report to the MDOC that they’ve been vaccinated, Gautz said.
Osborn said from the general reports he’s heard, “it doesn’t sound like a large percentage of staff have opted to take the vaccine at this point.”
Bellamy Creek was the site of a vaccination clinic Friday. The Department of Corrections said in the notice issued Monday that there were no reports of anyone at the clinic being exposed to the variant, “but out of an abundance of caution you are reminded to follow the guidelines for social distancing and handwashing. Should we be made aware of any exposures involving employees, they will be notified.”
Additionally, the state health department issued an emergency order Wednesday requiring daily testing of prison staff for at least 14 days when a COVID-19 outbreak of “special concern,” including cases resulting from variants, is declared at a facility.
Angie Jackson covers the challenges of formerly incarcerated citizens as a corps member with Report for America. Her work is supported by The GroundTruth Project and the Hudson-Webber Foundation. Click here to make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work. Become a Free Press subscriber.