BURGAW — Pender County waited to announce a small Covid-19 outbreak at the Pender Correctional Institution (PCI), located about a half-mile from Burgaw’s downtown courthouse, 11 days after identifying its first positive test and four days after identifying a second — which, according to the state’s top health official, constitutes an outbreak at that point in a congregate setting.
Hours after the county issued a release that four inmates had tested positive, one of the inmates died at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, marking the first Covid-19 death in a state prison.
At the state level, the N.C. Department of Public Security (DPS), which oversees the state’s prison division, has been slow in reporting the number of positive cases while transporting prisoners and adding staff at the hardest hit of its facilities, Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, and scaling up the production of face masks for prison employees.
Prisons have become hotspots for the novel coronavirus across the state and nation in recent weeks, posing an increasing threat of spreading the virus to nearby communities as states scramble to provide testing kits for inmates and personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff.
In North Carolina, the number of positive tests among inmates in its prison system jumped from three on April 2 to approximately 491 on April 24, according to the DPS.
An outbreak at Neuse Correctional revealed how fast the virus is capable of spreading within the close confines of a prison facility. On April 2, the minimum security prison identified two postive cases; that number rose to roughly 80 by April 16 and 430 by April 24, according to the NCDPS website.
But those numbers seem to be trickling into the state’s database in an untimely manner. According to Charlotte Observer, citing numbers provided by Wayne County, there were more than 450 postive cases identified at the facility as of Monday afternoon (and an additional eight employees). As of Thursday afternoon, the DPS was only reporting 366 positive cases at the facility — at least 84 less than those reported by the county. (The DPS updated this total to 430 on Friday afternoon.)
And on Tuesday, Pender County announced four PCI inmates had tested positive — but as of Friday, the DPS showed only 2 positive cases at the facility.
When asked about the discrepancy between what Pender County reported and what the DPS reported, DPS Division of Prisons spokesman John Bull on Friday said he “[does] not have an answer for you at this time.”
The state is also dealing with a reshuffle of inmates and staff to help control the outbreak at Neuse, perhaps exacerbating the delayed accounting of positive cases. On Saturday, it announced the closure of Johnston Correctional near Smithfield and the transfer of around 600 inmates to facilities in Troy and Morganton.
Those moves freed up staff at the now-closed Johnston prison to be reassigned to Neuse Correctional, about 23 miles away, according to the DPS.
Timeline of cases at Pender Correctional
The inmate who died at NHRMC first exhibited symptoms on April 8 — 13 days before the public was notified of what eventually became four positive cases identified at the facility.
He was transported to Pender Memorial on April 9 and to NHRMC in Wilmington on April 10, according to Pender EMS & Fire officer Stacey Wright. (Note: This contradicts information provided by the DPS, which said he was hospitalized three days later, on April 13.)
According to Pender Health Director Carolyn Moser, the county’s health department was notified on April 10 that the prisoner had tested postive, but she said there was no definitive diagnosis and no other confirmed cases in the facility at the time.
The positive test was added to the county’s total number of confirmed cases published daily to the county website, but his identity as a PCI inmate was not reported until nearly two weeks later, on April 21.
“[The] offender was not a threat to the community,” Moser said. “According to Pender Correctional, all staff had been given appropriate PPE.”
Although the DPS began distributing washable face masks to staff and inmates at three prisons where positive tests had been identified on April 6 — with the goal of issuing these masks to all staff and all inmates in every prison — it wasn’t until April 13 when it announced that masks were being distributed to all facilities where an inmate had tested postive.
At the time, the DPS said more than 60,000 washable face masks had been produced. The state also took other measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among its prisoners and staff, including the recent release of approximately 500 prisoners statewide and the screening of all staff entering a prison beginning in April.
On April 18, a second positive case was identified in the prison, but the county had still not announced the two cases even though it was then considered an outbreak, as defined by Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services. On April 8, she said an outbreak occurred when two or more people had tested positive in a congregate setting; 22 such outbreaks had been identified across the state at the time (18 at long-term care facilities).
This number has increased with the addition of PCI and at least nine other prison facilities reporting two or more positive cases.
On April 22, just before noon after the inmate’s death the prior evening, the DPS released an announcement, followed by the county’s own release at 5:30 p.m.
Why delay informing the public of an outbreak?
When asked why the county did not inform the public when the inmate first exhibited symptoms, or when he tested positive and was later hospitalized, Moser said the county does “not release information that would violate the patient’s right to privacy.”
“We release numbers, not locations,” she said. “Also, one case does not constitute an outbreak in a congregate living setting. We received the second positive [case] on April 18 which then became an outbreak.”
However, she did not address why an announcement of an outbreak didn’t occur until four days later. Asked when the NCDPS first notified the county of symptoms appearing in an inmate, she said, “Medical staff at the prison followed protocol in notifying the health department.”
County spokeswoman Tammy Proctor said it wasn’t the county who used the word ‘outbreak’ but the DPS, in response to why the county chose not to make an announcement on April 18 when two inmates tested positive.
“I would think an announcement of an ‘outbreak’ would come from the prison system,” Proctor said.
Asked if the county did not believe its residents should be informed of a potential community spread, instead relying on the DPS, she said the following:
[W]e have closely followed HIPAA to protect privacy of patients. We have repeatedly informed our residents of the number of confirmed cases, number of residents tested in Pender County, and the number of recovered cases in our daily Situation Reports. We have never revealed locations of these patients and we didn’t waiver from our message that our confirmed cases are spread across the county.
However, when we received reports of a third offender with COVID-19, we then felt we needed to issue a press release – even though releases regarding the prison system had been issued by the prison system. Out of professional courtesy, I contacted the PIO for the prison system. Just as I prepared to send the release, the health department was notified of a fourth case. I updated the release and sent it to [Port City Daily]. It was the 4.21.20 Pender Correctional release.
Asked when the NCDPS notified the county of when an inmate at PCI first exhibited symptoms, Bull said he “[does] not have that level of granular information,” noting the roughly 500 prisoners who had tested positive in the state’s prison system.
Currently, there have been 918 tests performed in the state’s prisons, according to the DPS — and only four at PCI.
Bull said the amount of tests performed for prison staff is unknown.
“Testing is a matter between a correctional officer and his or her primary physician,” Bull said. “We ask that they let their supervisor know if they test positive. They may, or may not, do that.”
Asked if PCI employees were wearing face masks on April 8, when the inmate first showed symptoms, he said the Covid-19 information page on the DPS website “spells out the actions taken and the chronology of the actions taken.”
As noted before, the DPS did not begin distributing face masks to staff and inmates at facilities where an inmate had tested positive until April 13.
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