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Prison is overwhelmed by COVID-19 outbreak
In Prairie du Chien
PdC Correctional Institution

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN - On Tuesday, Nov. 24, the Crawford County Public Health Department announced that following a mass testing event, 300 inmates and 65 staff at the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institute had tested positive for COVID-19. 

As of Monday, Nov. 30, the number of infections among residents has increased to 403 with 377 listed as ‘active positive,’ and three residents have been admitted to hospitals. This means that just over 80 percent of the 502 inmates have been infected. 

The remaining 88 inmates that have not tested positive will be re-tested on Wednesday, Dec. 2. One of the hospitalized inmates has died in a hospital in LaCrosse. The number of infected staff increased by three to 69.

Of the individuals incarcerated at the facility, 13 percent are considered to be at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19. The DOC defines ‘high risk’ as ‘those with COPD, diabetes, asthma, or those who are 65 years of age or older.

“High-risk individuals are separated in different units to mitigate the risk of one high-risk individual being infected with COVID-19 and then possibly infecting other high-risk individuals,” a DOC media team member explained.

According the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) COVID-19 database, a total of 23 of the cases were listed as ‘inactive,’ which means they have been removed from medical isolation. Three of the cases are listed as ‘released positive cases,’ and these are the individuals who have been hospitalized. Total tests administered at the facility to date are 1,361, with 958 tests having come back negative.

“The staff at the prison have been very transparent and forthcoming with our department,” Crawford County Director of Public Health, Cindy Riniker said. “Our department has furnished the facility with masks when they have been requested.”

According to Riniker, the staff working at the facility primarily come from Crawford, Grant and Iowa counties. According to a DOC media team spokesperson, less than two percent of the facility’s employees reside in Crawford County.

“Public health has made all the usual recommendations about wearing masks, distancing, hand washing, and quarantining for 10-14 days after a known exposure or a positive test,” Riniker explained. “I have no way to verify the extent to which these recommendations are adhered to in the facility, but as with the other 37 outbreaks currently under investigation in the county, situations like this always have potential to increase community spread in our county.”

Riniker said that among the 38 outbreaks currently under investigation by her department include, in addition to the prison, businesses, weddings, church gatherings, schools, nursing homes, and more.

In response to COVID-19, Wisconsin officials suspended all visits to state prisons on March 13, all work-release March 16, all transfers from county jails March 19, and all admissions on March 21, according to the DOC website. This means that, by April, one of the only remaining vectors for transmitting the virus into the prisons, was the guards. The population in the facility has been stable or declining, and closed, since late March.

The prison is designed for a capacity of 326, and as of November 20, was reported by the DOC as housing 502 inmates. This means the facility is currently being run at 154 percent capacity.

“Generally, inmates are housed in the facility four to a room. There is also a barracks-type area,” according to a representative from the DOC Media Team.

Staff protocols

Beginning the week of Nov. 16, all employees will be required to undergo a screening when reporting to work, consisting of a questionnaire and a temperature check, according to the DOC website. Employees who refuse will be considered “unfit for duty, and sent home.

Also beginning the week of November 16, employees will be required to submit to a COVID-19 test by nasal swab every two weeks. 

Prior to the week of November 16, beginning in mid-May, facilities began requiring employees to submit to COVID-19 testing.  All facilities conducted initial testing.  Follow-up testing was conducted as necessary and was dependent upon resources, location, number of positive cases and recommendation from the Department of Health Services, Division of Public Health.

As of the week of November 16, the following rules are in place:

If an employee refuses to be tested, the DOC website states that the following will happen: employees who refuse to submit to the screening/testing will be will be deemed unfit for duty, sent home and may be subject to discipline for insubordination. Employees will be in unpaid status.

“Personal Protective Equipment has not been a problem. Every person in our care is provided with a minimum of two double-ply cotton face coverings that can be laundered and reused,” according to a DOC Media Team representative. “Inmates are also able to purchase additional cloth masks, above and beyond the minimum, or their family and friends can purchase extra masks for their loved ones in our care. Policy calls for them to wear face coverings when in common areas, but not in their rooms.

“Staff are required to wear face coverings when working in DOC facilities. The exceptions are primarily for when eating, drinking and working alone in an enclosed space.”

Positive test

Employees who test positive for COVID-19 will be subject to the following conditions according to the DOC website:

“The employee will be deemed “unfit for duty” and will be sent home immediately.  They will be asked to contact their health care provider for additional direction. The DOC continues to follow federal CDC and state DHS guidance and is in communication with local health departments to ensure appropriate handling of staff with positive test results.  The below scenarios align with that guidance: isolate when positive for COVID-19 with or without symptoms.”

To return to work, there is guidance for employees who test positive, with or without symptoms:

With symptoms:A positive employee with symptoms will stay home until all the following apply:

• they have been fever-free for 24 hours (without the use of fever reducing medications)

• their other symptoms have improved

• it has been at least 10 days since their first symptom onset

Without symptoms:A positive employee with no symptoms shall stay home and monitor for symptoms.  If the employee continues to have no symptoms, ​they can return 10 days after they were tested.​

In close contact

As far as whether an employee who has been in close contact with someone that tested positive for COVID-19, there is different guidance for ‘classifications with staffing shortages’ versus those without staff shortages.

For positions with staff shortages: CDC’s critical infrastructure guidance provides exceptions to current home quarantine practices after an exposure to COVID-19for some workers. The guidance advises that employers may permit workers who have had an exposure to COVID-19, but who do not have symptoms, to continue to work, provided they adhere to additional safety precautions, such as measuring the employee’s temperature and assessing for symptoms of COVID-19 before each work shift (“pre-screening”), asking the employee to self-monitor for symptoms during their work shift, and requiring appropriate PPE (e.g. approved face coverings).     

Additionally, per the DHS guidance and March 18, 2020 memo to the Department of Corrections, this exception should only be used for healthcare workers or where quarantine would present a public safety threat such as in the case of DOC facility positions where staffing shortages are a safety concern and mandating quarantine due to exposure would exacerbate the staffing concerns.  DHS also issued Health Alert #16, on September 10 to further clarify that quarantine requirements may be modified in circumstances where excluding a person from work could result in an imminent threat to patient care, public health or public safety.  These circumstances should be approved on a case-by-case basis as opposed to a blanket approach. Units are encouraged to work closely with the local public health department.

Wisconsin prisons

As of Monday, Nov. 30, there were a total of 8,458 positive COVID-19 tests of inmates in Wisconsin prisons. There are currently 1,161 ‘active cases’ and 123 ‘released positive cases.’ There are currently 7,174 ‘inactive positive cases,’ with 2,932 cases in quarantine and 1,236 in isolation. The number of COVID-19 deaths of prisonersWin wisconsin stands at 11.

Previously, the Wisconsin DOC, unlike the neighboring states of Michigan and Minnesota, was not releasing the number of deaths, citing HIPPA laws. The number, however, may be higher; according to the DOC, “a death will only be considered a COVID-19 Related Death if a local medical examiner/coroner makes the determination.”

According to a representative from the DOC Media Team, the following steps are being taken to address overcrowding and review terms of supervision of inmates.

“Our adult population is at 20,631 as of last Friday, Nov. 20, the lowest it has been in two decades, according to our point-in-time population dashboard. That dashboard shows this administration inherited a population of 23,857.

“There is not just one reason the numbers are trending down. As seen on DOC’s dashboard, revocation and revocation new sentence has mostly trended down. In addition, we have continued our Earned Release Program (ERP) during the pandemic and, just last month, held a town hall with stakeholders about a proposal to increase enrollment in ERP. We are also talking with our stakeholders and gathering input on proposed changes to our supervision violation and revocation policies, which we believe can help safely reduce revocations that make up a sizeable piece of our adult population.

“Also, as it notes on our weekly population reports, design capacity is defined as the original design capacity of an institution (which for PDCI was 1997), based on industry standards, plus modifications and expansions. During the last 23 years, beds and multiple bunking were instituted to accommodate crowding.”