Cases of the fast-spreading B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant more than doubled in Michigan this week, propelled by 90 new reported cases at an Ionia prison.
Of 157 known cases of the strain across the state, 91 are from an outbreak at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility, according to the state health department.
Testing for the variant at a state lab has confirmed 88 prisoner cases and three staff cases at Bellamy Creek. More than 100 additional results from the prison are pending.
The presence of the more contagious variant — first detected in the United Kingdom — has some prisoners and their loved ones wondering when the spread of the virus behind prison walls will end. Roughly 62% of people housed by the Michigan Department of Corrections throughout the pandemic have tested positive for COVID-19. Of the current statewide population of about 33,000 prisoners, about 4,000 have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Under the state’s guidance for prioritization groups, all prison staff and prisoners 65 and older are currently eligible for the vaccine.
Dr. Adam Lauring, an associate professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at the University of Michigan, said the variant has the potential to lead to larger outbreaks than those seen earlier in the pandemic if protocols for controlling the spread in prison settings aren’t stringent.
“We have less room for error, or less room for incomplete measures or compliance,” he said. “So masks still work, but we need to make sure that people have masks and that they fit well. We need to do everything we can do maintain distance, which, of course, is one of the big challenges in a prison.”
A Bellamy Creek employee was the first person in the state prison system confirmed to have the variant on Feb. 8. MDOC then began daily testing at the facility. Prisoners and staff are tested daily with a rapid test. If a rapid test result comes back positive, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is taken and sent to a state lab for sequencing for the variant.
The daily testing regimen includes 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, some prisoners with comorbidities who tested positive for COVID-19were transferred from the prison in Ionia to those facilities in case they developed severe symptoms, MDOC said.
Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the corrections department, said Wednesday that no cases of the variant had been confirmed at Duane Waters, Macomb or any other facilities.
At Bellamy Creek, 705 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, and 332 of those cases were active as of Tuesday. One prisoner has died.
MDOC says 122 staff at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19.
The prison houses 1,613 prisoners and employs 425 people.
Gautz said all Bellamy Creek employees are wearing full PPE — N95 masks, gowns, gloves — and are instructed to work in one assigned unit of the prison for the foreseeable future. The facility has limited the movements of prisoners, who are provided cloth masks. Prisoners who have tested positive for COVID-19 and their close contacts are housed separately in designated areas of housing units, Gautz said.
Tiffany Alexander’s husband is incarcerated at Bellamy Creek and said the increased time in his cell, with fewer opportunities to shower and call home, has been hard on him. He has complained to her that he isn’t given enough soap.
Alexander, 32, who lives in Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, said her husband contracted COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic, and his daily tests have been negative.
“My concern is we have a 9-month-old that he’s never met. And with everything it’s like, will he ever meet?” she said, her voice trailing off. “That’s my concern. Is he gonna come home or is he not?”
Gautz said the department was reviewing information about symptoms among prisoners with the variant on Wednesday, and said he was not aware of anyone with B.1.1.7 who is hospitalized.
Across the state, active COVID-19 cases among MDOC prisoners are down from late last year, when there were as many as 7,700 active infections at one point in December. As of Tuesday, MDOC reported 930 active cases.
Overall, 25,039 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, and 138 have died.
MDOC says 3,567 staff across the state have tested positive. Four have died.
In the greater community, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are down from November. Health experts say it’s too early to tell whether the B.1.1.7 variant will become the dominant strain in Michigan and drive up case counts.
Outside of Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility, no cases of the variant have been confirmed in the greater community in Ionia County, where the prison is located. Cases have been identified in Calhoun, Charlevoix, Clinton, Eaton, Kalamazoo, Kent, Macomb, Sanilac, St. Clair, Van Buren, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, as well as in the city of Detroit.
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.