2020 July: COVID-19 in a correctional facility | A second wave?

In Updates by Beth

We are nearly reaching the end of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic has become a ubiquitous part of our lives. This is now a world in which handshakes are intrusive, remote work has become a standard and face masks have risen as an essential part of our wardrobe. It is no surprise that as the American landscape has morphed, correctional facilities have had to cope with the difficult challenge of keeping staff, inmates and the public protected from our shared invisible enemy.

While it may be premature or overly optimistic to think about the aftermath of this pandemic, especially since parts of the country are just now seeing their worst numbers of COVID-19 cases and fatalities, it is wise to predict and prepare for some of the barriers that we will inevitably have to overcome.

An initial and important point that needs to be considered prior to projecting and planning for a post-COVID-19 world is: “When and how are we going to be able to tell that the pandemic is under control?” It could be argued that the natural answer is: “When we have a vaccine.” This may or may not be accurate, as some countries around the world have been able to manage viral transmissions through social interventions. In either case, testing would need to be widespread, affordable and readily available.

Particularly in a country as large as the United States, it is more likely that we will see peaks waxing and waning in different areas, creating a pattern in which resources and supplies are consistently shuffled in an attempt to put out the newest fire. For example, Massachusetts has mostly overcome the initial surge of COVID-19 cases, but as other parts of the country such as Texas and Florida sees their numbers rising, Massachusetts has started to experience delays in testing turnaround time and supplies have become increasingly depleted as they are rerouted to more critical parts of the country. This situation is possibly a preview of what’s to come, as it is unlikely that the pandemic will be managed uniformly across the nation.

One must consider that we may be stuck in this carousel for some time before COVID-19 is fully under control, which poses a serious concern: if states that experienced an early surge go through a second wave, will resources and supplies used to combat the infection once again be an issue? This could very well be the case, highlighting the importance of being prepared for future outbreaks or surges. Correctional facilities, universally considered “hot spots” of COVID-19 for numerous reasons, need to be acutely aware of such cycles and prepared to combat them – whether that means ensuring that enough PPE is consistently available or that tests can be accessed in an efficient manner.

As history has taught us, pandemics tend to have a second wave, often times worse than the original one. As the Fall season approaches, bringing old acquaintances such as the influenza virus with it, the challenge might be even greater. Vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or the immune compromised, will be particularly at risk. Those with chronic diseases, who are disproportionately prevalent among the incarcerated population, are also in a fragile position – if contracting COVID-19 is bad, imagine contracting COVID-19 and the flu at the same time while being in jail or prison?

There are certainly some positive things to consider, such as “herd immunity” (i.e. when a large proportion of a population becomes immune to a disease, minimizing transmission of the disease from person to person and resulting on the whole group being protected),  progressive viral weakening or flu vaccines that will be particularly effective. However, good preventive and safety measures are not based on best case scenarios, especially when considering a vulnerable setting such as correctional facilities.

Preparation, precaution and prevention will likely go a long way. They will need to be carefully thought out, planned and delivered. That would evidently depend of the availability of resources and the wellbeing of correctional staff – both physical and emotional. Workflow in correctional facilities has and will continue to change, as we have seen early releases and alternative sanctions. That being said, as the world attempts to go back to whatever the new normal is, census in jails and prisons might once again increase, potentially taxing resources that are precious and limited to begin with.

So, what can we try prepare for a second wave?

The 4 P’s: Preparation, Precaution, Prevention, and Patience.

 

  • Preparation: The seasonal flu is around the corner. Get your PPE supplies lined up get the vaccine to your most vulnerable populations soon as possible. The seasonal flu and COVID 19 for those with chronic disease can be fatal.

 

  • Precaution: Do not let your guard down. While state guidelines and restrictions may be relaxing, maintaining diligence including handwashing, wearing PPE, and screening symptomatic inmates and staff is paramount. Maintain social distancing and implement physical barriers during assessments when possible.

 

  • Prevention: Prepare your staff and institution for the “second wave” and use caution and you are more likely to prevent spreading.

 

  • Patience: Although patience is the last “P”, it should be the foundation of all our actions. We must be patient with staff, our peers, inmates, administration, and most importantly, ourselves. Communicate with staff and inmates. Let them know the steps you are taking to prepare. Educate them on precaution and preventative measures. Provide good leadership through example.

 

Once the wounds left by COVID-19 heal, we will be dealing with the scars and sequelae. Inmates are certainly facing and dealing with numerous stressors during this pandemic – and so are correctional professionals. To ensure that our facilities can endure and survive this COVID-19 vortex, we will have to stay attuned to each facility’s needs, including the needs of staff and a given inmate population. During times of stress, whether in the eye of the storm or rebuilding from the destruction left behind, it is easy to lose sight. At times we have to hold on to hope, at times to optimism, at times to each other. The more prepared and aligned we become, the better will be our chances to withstand these dark times.