More than 16K prisoners and staff checked for COVID-19 in first 3 days of self-testing

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HUNTSVILLE, Texas (KXAN) — The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is waiting for thousands of results to start rolling in via email for the new widespread COVID-19 testing the agency launched Tuesday for inmates and staff who are not showing symptoms.

As of Friday evening, the TDCJ reported strike teams have completed more than 13,000 offender tests and more than 3,000 employee swab tests. This means the agency has now tested more than 12% of the 140,000 Texas inmates. On Wednesday, the TDCJ had only tested less than 2% of the prison population as positive cases among staff and inmates continued to rise.

The new tests, manufactured by California company Curative Inc., are self-administered cheek-swabs.

A TDCJ spokesperson said 12 trained strike teams have been deployed to prison units across the state to oversee the testing, starting with units that have the highest number of positive COVID-19 cases.

Testing is complete at the Pack, Sanchez, Middleton, Murray, Terrell, LeBlanc, and Lopez Units. Testing continues at the Wynne, Clements, Ellis, Michael, Telford, Woodman, Robertson, Fort Stockton, Darrington, Stiles, Hughes, and Segovia Units, according to TDCJ.

Once the swab samples are taken, the agency gathers up the completed test tubes and ships them overnight to the Curative lab. The results, estimated to take 24-48 hours, come back electronically.

A TDCJ spokesperson said inmates who test positive, but are feeling no symptoms will be placed together in dorms.

“The ability to take those asymptomatic but positive offenders and further cohort them and put them into groups where we know this entire group is positive that can be nothing but good as far as the overall attack on COVID-19,” said Jeremy Desel, Communications Director for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

For weeks, prison experts and family members of those incarcerated have been calling for mass testing as the virus has continued to spread in state prisons.

The state paid Curative $45 million for 300,000 tests, according to the Texas Department of Emergency Management, which are not just reserved for infected prisons. The TDCJ has picked up 80,000 tests so far. The rest are being stored in a TDEM warehouse.

Desel said it will likely take 110,000 tests to get the agency through the first wave of tests.

“I’m grateful that they are going to test,” said Lovinah Igbani, whose fiance is incarcerated at the Eastham Unit in Lovelady north of Hunstville. “That was one of the demands on our list of things that we wanted to change is that they test everyone — I’m hoping that they’re accurate.”

Curative CEO and founder Fred Turner told The Texas Tribine the swab tests have a 10% rate of producing false negatives. Turner told dot.LA earlier this month all tests for the coronavirus and COVID-19 have false negative rates.

The TDCJ is continuing to test inmates and staff members showing symptoms as they have been doing since March, and medically isolating those who test positive. There are currently 40 units on lockdown because they have at least one positive case of COVID-19, which is impacting more than 37,000 inmates across the state.

As of Friday at 6 p.m., the agency reported more than 1,900 positive tests among prisoners — an increase of 114 from the day before — and more than 700 positives cases among staff. A total of 30 Texas inmates have died from COVID-19, and an additional 21 inmate deaths are pending autopsy. Seven TDCJ staff members have died from COVID-19. 

For weeks, prison advocates and experts have been calling for mass testing in prisons to get a handle on what’s really happening inside.

“I think people are not going to be happy with what they find when they do this expansive testing,” said Mike Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. “And it will put more pressure on the system to get the numbers down and to safely manage the people who are incarcerated and the people who work in these facilities.”

What are others states with outbreaks doing?

Other states like Tennessee, Ohio and Arkansas, that were some of the first to start mass testing in prisons, are seeing the number of cases spike — and finding most positive prisoners were asymptomatic.

That’s also the case in North Carolina where Lauren Brinkley-Rubenstein, an assistant professor with the University of North Carolina, has spent more than 15 years studying the health of those incarcerated. She believes there are two main factors behind states waiting until they had outbreaks to take action.

“I think it’s political, if I’m being honest,” said Brinkley-Rubenstein. “If you don’t test, you’re not finding cases and then maybe you’re not as likely to get a lot of attention because it’s a superficial way to make people think that maybe you don’t have cases on the inside.”

She said the second factor is resources, and thinks prison systems should not be demonized due to the limited resources they have to deal with a pandemic and healthcare in general during normal times.

“I think it’s very important that public health entities think about prisons and jails as part of public health rather than showing it as something different,” said Brinkley-Rubenstein.

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