“They Didn’t Test Anybody”: Jails Across New York Administer Alarmingly Few Tests During Omicron Surge

During the first eight weeks of omicron, only one jail system administered enough tests to screen every incarcerated person even once, a New York Focus analysis found. Most didn’t come close to that rate.

Chris Gelardi   ·   February 2, 2022
Between December 1 and January 26, Broome County Jail administered 57 Covid tests seven per week in a facility that jails more than 380 people on any given day. | Broome County Sheriff's Office

Around mid-December, as the omicron variant of Covid-19 swept across New York state, four men in Leroy Peoples’s housing unit in the Broome County Correctional Facility began experiencing flu-like symptoms. They tested positive for Covid, and the Binghamton jail put the roughly 60-person pod on lockdown, according to Peoples.

But the jail didn’t test anyone else in the housing unit for Covid, he said, despite everyone having lived in close quarters with those with confirmed cases.

“We sit down and watch television, play cards, play chess — we live within a very close proximity to one another every single day,” Peoples told New York Focus. Nobody knew whether anybody else had contracted Covid. “It’s just nuts, man. They didn’t test anybody.”

Indeed, even as the county and state saw by far the worst and most rapid spike in confirmed Covid cases since the beginning of the pandemic, few people jailed in Broome County have been tested for Covid. Between December 1 and January 26, the jail reported administering 57 tests to the jail population — seven per week in a facility that jails more than 380 people on any given day.

And Broome County isn’t alone in its lack of testing for incarcerated people.

Using internet archives, New York Focus analyzed eight weeks of Covid data — from December 1, the day before omicron was first detected in New York, to January 26 — published by the State Commission of Correction, or SCOC, a government body tasked with monitoring incarceration standards. The numbers show an alarming lack of testing in local jails, which have been Covid hotbeds since the beginning of the pandemic and whose populations generally have low vaccination rates, and a wide gap between the few jail jurisdictions that test regularly and the many that don’t.

According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, US jails had a 50 percent average weekly turnover rate in 2019 and 2020, the lowest in over a decade. Thus, the average jail would have had to administer roughly five times the number of tests as its average daily population over the eight weeks to test each incarcerated person even once. (The state last published average daily jail populations for the month of November.)

But only one of New York’s 58 jail jurisdictions reported testing that frequently during the omicron surge, and only two others reported testing at at least half that rate. A vast majority reported testing at slower than a quarter of that rate, while at least two counties reported testing no incarcerated people at all during that eight-week period.

Additionally, at least one county has ignored SCOC requests for testing data with no apparent penalties, raising questions about the efficacy of state-level oversight.

Meanwhile, one county could be a model for a different approach: Monroe County touts a robust and regular testing regimen in its jails that allows it to screen hundreds of incarcerated people per week.

In the first eight weeks of omicron, nearly 3,200 people in jails across the state tested positive for Covid, according to the SCOC data, including more than 2,100 outside of New York City, nearly doubling the case count since the SCOC started tracking it in April 2020. As of January 26, nearly a third of jurisdictions had jails on at least partial lockdown.

With the attention of the press and public officials focused on disarray on Rikers Island during the latest coronavirus surge, other New York jails have flown under the radar, leaving Covid issues like testing unscrutinized.

State watchdogs have done little to intercede. The SCOC has not required or recommended any policies or procedures during the pandemic for Covid testing in local jails. According to a commission spokesperson, that’s up to the New York State Department of Health, which, now nearly two years into the pandemic, also hasn’t set any standards or issued recommendations, leaving jails to test — or not — as they see fit.

“There is no, nor has there ever been, any mandated directive that everyone needs to be tested,” asserted Mark Smolinsky, the Broome County Correctional Facility’s chief administrator. “There’s never been clear, mandated things.”

“There is a fact of no oversight of jails outside New York City,” said William Martin, a sociology professor at Binghamton University and organizer of Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier, an activist and watchdog group in Broome County. “And that’s been a real consistent problem leading to multiple unnecessary deaths in our jails.”

“Symptom-Based Testing”

Smolinsky refers to the Broome County jail’s approach to detecting Covid as “symptom-based testing.”

“Unless they’re suffering some type of symptoms,” the jail will likely not administer a test, he said. “Like if you have a contact trace of somebody, you’re not necessarily going to be tested.”

Other jails have taken a similar approach. “If somebody had an exposure, we only test if they show symptoms,” said Peter Watrobski, a lieutenant with the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, which only administered six tests to its jail population — daily average 64 — throughout the entire first eight weeks of the omicron surge.

That approach does little to prevent the spread of Covid, according to experts.

“The use of symptom-based testing is completely indefensible from any basic epidemiological, infectious disease, or public health perspective,” said Eric Reinhart, resident physician at Northwestern University and anthropologist of policing, prisons, and public health. “It’s plainly irrational and irresponsible, and it will not provide necessary protection against Covid outbreaks in jails.”

Smolinsky said that, although county and state agencies haven’t imposed specific testing policies or guidelines on the Broome County jail, the facility implements its testing policies “in accordance with the county health department, who’s in touch with the state health department.”

In a statement, the New York State Department of Health said, “Counties, in conjunction with their own county health departments, are responsible for managing their jails, which includes their response to COVID.” The department has reviewed the SCOC’s Covid policies, but “has not implemented additional review of oversight measures related to testing incarcerated people,” the statement said.

The Broome County Health Department did not respond to New York Focus’s emailed questions. The Broome County jail has previously received criticism for other aspects of its approach to medical care, which local advocates have linked to the high death rate among its population.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that jails and prisons test all incarcerated people “with known or suspected exposure” to the virus.

“Frequent, repeated testing is especially important in high-risk spaces like jails,” said Reinhart. He added that one of the highest risk periods for infection is during the initial arrest, transport, and jail intake process. And since the coronavirus takes at least a few days to incubate, and people are constantly flowing in and out of local jails, follow-up testing is crucial for detecting Covid cases. He also suggested that jail staff take rapid tests daily. The SCOC does not publish staff testing numbers.

Reinhart notes, however, that “far and away the best preventative policy in jails and prisons is decarceration.” He points to his and other studies that show that reducing jail populations “dramatically reduces risk of viral spread,” and that decarceration has shown to reduce the spread of Covid in communities surrounding jails.

After a dip in 2020, jail populations in New York have returned to near their pre-pandemic levels.

Many of the New York jails failing to routinely screen incarcerated people for Covid are smaller facilities in rural areas: 11 of the 20 jail jurisdictions that reported administering the fewest tests relative to their jail populations during the omicron wave house fewer than 100 people on average.

But some large jail systems, too, have abysmal testing rates, including those that have seen recent outbreaks. The Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office in Syracuse, with an average daily population of 523 in its two jails, reported administering only 102 tests in the first eight weeks of the omicron wave — fewer than 13 per week — while reporting 74 confirmed cases among incarcerated people.

In the Hudson Valley, the Orange County Correctional Facility, with an average of 459 incarcerated people, reported administering just over 12 per week, with 73 confirmed cases during that time period. Last week, New York City public defender organizations accused the Orange County jail of failing to provide vaccines, adequate medical care, or proper quarantine space to incarcerated people.

New York City reported testing the 15th most frequently of the state’s jail systems relative to its jail size, administering more than 6,200 tests to its average daily jail population of roughly 5,300.

At least two counties — Allegany and Wyoming, which jail around 65 and 50 people, respectively, on any given day — reported to the SCOC that they tested zero incarcerated people over the eight weeks. Neither Allegany County Jail administrator Christopher Ivers nor Wyoming County Jail administrators responded to emails and voicemails from New York Focus.

On Long Island, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office claims that it has a robust Covid testing program in its two jails. However, it doesn’t keep track of how many tests it administers, and thus doesn’t report those numbers to the state — and can’t calculate an overall positivity rate. “We stopped counting the number of tests because we got to the point where we were testing up to 50-100+ inmates a day,” Paul Spinella of the sheriff’s office’s public relations office said in an email.

Asked about Suffolk County’s lack of testing data, an SCOC spokesperson wrote in an email that “SCOC compiles numbers reported by the jails, relies on them to report accurately and urges all jails to report all COVID data requested by SCOC.” The spokesperson also referred to state codes that empower the SCOC to “require … any information deemed necessary for the purpose of carrying out the commission’s functions.” Asked whether that gives the SCOC the power to mandate that jails track certain data points, the spokesperson did not directly answer, instead referring back to the state codes and pointing to regulations that require jails to report communicable disease outbreaks and quarantines.

The Suffolk County jails recently experienced a Covid outbreak. As of Monday, 78 incarcerated people had tested positive since the beginning of the year, according to the sheriff’s office’s website.

An Outlier

In contrast to most other jails, one facility — the Monroe County Jail in Rochester — reported administering enough tests to screen more than every incarcerated person, even accounting for turnover, over the past two months. Between December 1 and January 26, the jail, which holds roughly 700 to 800 people on any given day, reported administering 4,590 tests to its incarcerated population.

According to James McGowan, major of operations at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, the jail administers a rapid test to new arrivals outdoors before they enter the building, then a PCR test within 48 hours, then at least one more test before admitting them to general population. The jail also tests every incarcerated person except those who have tested positive recently on at least a weekly basis, McGowan said. And the jail tests all staff twice a week, up from weekly since omicron. To boost its testing capabilities, the jail has obtained its own PCR machine so staff can get results quickly and onsite rather than sending tests out to a lab.

“That testing policy is mostly what’s kept us — knock on wood — death-free from the very beginning,” McGowan said.

McGowan said the jail gets all of its tests from the Monroe County Health Department, “which has an amazing supply line for the testing kits.” But not all jails have that kind of access. Smolinsky said that the Broome County jail only uses PCR tests, which it obtains from local hospitals, and hasn’t secured a source for readily available rapid tests.

The New York State Department of Health doesn’t send Covid testing supplies to jails, a practice adopted by other state health departments. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services, for instance, started sending supplies to jails in June 2020. Since then, it has provided 92 correctional facilities and jails with nearly 125,000 tests, according to a department spokesperson.

Despite its robust testing, the Monroe County Jail experienced a large Covid outbreak recently — a testament to how quickly Covid, and specifically the omicron variant, can infiltrate and take over a facility. On December 22, the sheriff’s department reported to the state that it had eight active cases in its jail; five days later, it announced that that number had jumped to 87; and nine days after that, it reported 175 active cases.

However, according to McGowan, the large-scale, proactive testing allows the jail to “quickly gain control” of such outbreaks. During that two-week period, the jail reported administering more than 1,400 tests to its incarcerated population. As of Wednesday, the number of active cases had dropped to 22, according to an online dashboard the sheriff’s office updates daily.

“Going on seven months, I’ve never been offered a test”

As of late December, nearly half of those who had tested positive for Covid at the Monroe County Jail didn’t show symptoms, according to the sheriff’s office — raising questions about whether jail jurisdictions with reactive, less rigorous testing procedures are missing Covid cases or catching them too late to prevent mass outbreaks, especially as the highly transmissible, often asymptomatic omicron variant remains prevalent.

Cases in point are the Dutchess County Jail in Poughkeepsie and the Rensselaer County Correctional Facility in Troy — on paper, two of the hardest hit by the omicron surge. Until recently, both jails had scant Covid testing: Like Broome and Fulton counties, Dutchess County had a symptom-based testing policy, according to jail administrator Therese Lee, while Rensselaer County would test symptomatic people and those who had come into contact with someone who tested positive, along with those being transferred to prison, according to public information officer Kyle Bourgault.

Then, in late December, both jails launched one-time testing drives to screen roughly every incarcerated person. But by that point, Covid had already spread rampant. About three-quarters of the Dutchess County Jail’s average population and nearly a third of the Rensselaer County facility — over 200 people in total — tested positive. Many of those cases likely would have flown under the radar if not for the impromptu mass testing.

The question of missed cases due to a lack of testing predates omicron, too. In roughly the first 11 months of the pandemic, the Broome County Correctional Facility administered just 169 tests to incarcerated people, according to data obtained by Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier via a Freedom of Information Law request. Nearly four in 10 results came back positive, reflecting the “symptom-based testing” approach. For comparison, the World Health Organization has suggested a 5 percent test positivity bar for governments to gauge whether they are testing frequently enough to get an accurate case count and are ready to lift restrictions.

Those numbers track with Peoples’s experience in the jail. He said he hasn’t taken a Covid test since he entered the Broome County facility in mid-June 2021 — even when his housing unit has been placed on lockdown, and even when he has come into contact with corrections officers who ended up testing positive. “Going on seven months, I’ve never been offered a test,” he said.

With the recent rush for Covid testing, and federal and state initiatives to meet the demand, Peoples wonders where incarcerated people fit in. “The state of New York has given out millions of free tests,” he said. “Where’s that percentage for the county jail?”

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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