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New coronavirus variant found in West Michigan prison

Image of a prison fence
Shayan Sanyal/flickr

A more contagious variant of the coronavirus has been detected at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility, in Ionia.  


According to an internal Michigan Department of Corrections email obtained by Michigan Radio, incarcerated people and employees there will now be tested daily. Usually, they are tested weekly


“After discussions with MDHHS, it was determined this additional level of testing was necessary to protect prisoners, staff and the community,” the email says. 


There are 1,678 incarcerated people and 406 employees at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility, according to the MDOC.  


“As part of the state’s effort to limit the spread of this variant, the MDOC will be taking extra steps to identify where this variant is present amongst staff and the prisoner population,” the email says.


At the time of this piece's original publishing, MDOC had not replied for comment. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also did not respond. 


Byron Osborn is the president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union for approximately 6,000 MDOC officers. He said his organization was notified of the variant at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility.  


"It's another round of bad news for our members and other staff that work at the facility," he said. 


Health experts say this variant of the virus first detected in the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7) is more contagious than the original strain. It was firstdetected in Michigan in mid-January.


The Michigan Department of Corrections had recentlystarted sending test results to a state lab to look for coronavirus variants.


The MDOC email says this new daily level of testing will also apply to “certain” incarcerated individuals and staff at Duane Waters Health Center and Macomb Correctional Facility. The email says prior to the detection of the positive B.1.1.7 result, several prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19 were transferred to these facilities “due to their comorbidities so they could have access to appropriate care if they began experiencing more severe symptoms.” 


“Those prisoners will also be subject to the daily testing, as well as all prisoners and staff in the covid positive unit at DWH (Duane) and MRF (Macomb),” the email states. 


MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz said later to Michigan Radio that the COVID positive unit in the Macomb facility is "self-contained" and the wing at Duane Waters Health Center is small.


People were transferred to the Duane and Macomb facilities for "preventive measures", since they had the risk factors to be more vulnerable to COVID, Gautz explained. These transfers helped lessen the burden on rural hospitals and ICUs.


Two incarcerated individuals were transferred to Duane Waters Health Center. Twenty-eight people were moved to Macomb.


The daily testing will continue until further notice. The new testing regimen will consist of a daily BinaxNOW rapid test. If a result comes back positive, a PCR test will be taken and sent to the state lab to see if it is a coronavirus variant. 


“This testing would be for every employee and prisoner, every day, regardless of whether they have tested positive in the past 90 days,” the email says. “The regular weekly PCR testing will not take place during the period that daily tests are performed.”


Macomb is doing roughly 30 tests per day, according to Gautz. Duane is doing about 15 per day.


“Consistent with how staff refusals have been handled with the weekly testing, staff who do not participate in the daily testing will be ineligible for work,” the email reads.


Osborn said the union had concerns with the rapid testing. 


“Our question around that is the same as it's been for the COVID-19 testing and that there has been a lot of discrepancy and question around the accuracy of these rapid tests,” he said.


He said there have been instances where an officer has gotten a positive result from the department’s testing but after going to a local clinic and getting it verified, the test has come back as negative. Osborn said he is not questioning the seriousness of the new variant, but he said this process has reduced the number of staff who can work. 


“We want the testing to be accurate and we want to try to maintain our staffing levels and keep people from getting burned out,” he said. “We are at the point right now where every individual body is significant. Every available worker is significant.”


The email says there are no reports of exposure at the vaccination clinic at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility. Gautz said later to Michigan Radio less than a hundred MDOC employees went there on Friday.


“...but out of an abundance of caution you are reminded to follow the guidelines for social distancing and handwashing,” the email states. “Should we be made aware of any exposures involving employees, they will be notified.”


The email referred to accommodations for staff in the event they need to isolate from home. Osborn said in the past, the department has provided accommodations in local hotels. 


As of February 9, Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility had 485 totalconfirmed cases ofCOVID-19 since March and 98 active positive cases. There has been one death at the prison. 


The Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility is located in Ionia County, which has three other prisons — altogether, the county had nearly 400 active COVID-19 cases among its incarcerated population. 


As for the other facilities: Duane Waters Health Center has 27 confirmed cases since March. Macomb Correctional Facility has 434 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. 


Dr. Adam Lauring, an infectious disease expert at the University of Michigan, told Michigan Radioearlier this week that U.K. studies have shown that households with the B.1.1.7 variant had more "secondary cases" than households with the original COVID-19 strain.   


"We know that prisons are fertile grounds for the virus to transmit. And so, I think if you had a more transmissible or contagious variants in prison, it would potentially infect more people," he said.


The possibility of the new variant entering prisons worried activists like Joshua Hoe, a policy analyst for non-profit Safe and Just Michigan. Hoe said on Monday incarcerated people can't effectively socially distance, even with the original strain. 


"When I was incarcerated, I was in a 160-person unit for most of the time. And everyone was mere feet away from each other at most," he said. "It is scary, it makes me more worried.” 


“But I think the rate of contagion is incredibly high already in prison."


This post was updated on Feb. 12 at 4:51 p.m.

Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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