LANSING — Vaccinations began this week inside several Michigan prisons, just as new data shows the state has some of the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates in the nation.
Only one state — South Dakota — reported a higher infection rate among its incarcerated population than Michigan, while two states — New Mexico and Nevada — reported higher death rates, data from The Marshall Project shows.
The Michigan Department of Corrections voluntarily provides COVID-19 numbers to The Marshall Project, a New York City nonprofit organization focused on criminal justice issues, an MDOC spokesperson said.
Comparing rates of infection and death from the virus among Michigan’s prison population, with rates in other states without factoring in testing, doesn’t provide an accurate overview, said Chris Gautz, of MDOC.
“We’re doing more testing than any other state in the country,” Gautz said. “I would posit that if every state were doing what we’re doing, Michigan would look no different compared to other states of similar size.”
MDOC began weekly testing of every person incarcerated in the state’s 28 prisons in late May — a massive and expensive undertaking involving about 33,000 people, documents show.
Gautz did not provide exact figures, but acknowledged funding the effort required “tens of millions of dollars.”
Federal recovery funds the state received helped offset some of that cost, he said, but more federal support is needed.
“We’re doing the testing because we feel it is important, it saves lives and it is our legal obligation,” Gautz said “We’ve been given these individuals by the court, we have to provide them with an adequate level of medical care. Its also important for our staff to know exactly what they’re dealing with.”
The virus has not spared corrections officers or other prison staff — a Jan. 15 email to members from SEIU Local 526M, the union that represents MDOC employees, reported that more than 3,000, or about 25 percent, had tested positive for COVID-19.
Four prison staff members have died of the disease, MDOC data shows.
As long as the virus spreads through congregate facilities like prisons, it is logical to expect more testing will reveal more cases.
Less obvious is why the state’s robust testing would also reveal a higher death rate in Michigan than in most other states.
Gautz said he thinks cases in many other states are underreported.
“In a lot of other states, if they have prisoners die, and they are not testing for COVID, they don’t know whether it’s a COVID death or not,” Gautz said.
“Some of death certificates in other states say pneumonia or something else. But because we’re testing, we do know when it’s a COVID death.”
The ambitious testing effort did not prevent severe outbreaks in Carson City, Central Michigan, Chippewa, Kinross, Muskegon, Newberry and Saginaw correctional facilities, where as many as 80 percent of those incarcerated became infected, MDOC data shared online shows.
Overall, three of every five people incarcerated in Michigan prisons have tested positive, data shows — 10 times the state’s overall infection rate.
One who tested positive and suffered severe symptoms was Arthur Edwin Anderson, “Eddie” to his mom, Patricia Hicks of Traverse City.
“It was bad,” Hicks said. “He told me, Mom, I’ve never ached like that in my life.’”
Anderson, 59, who is serving a five-year sentence for a third offense domestic violence conviction, tested positive in November, Hicks said.
He was treated with bed rest and Tylenol, recovered and is scheduled to be paroled March 2.
Kinross’ has the capacity to house 1,600 people; since May 1,508 have tested positive and eight have died, MDOC data shows.
The facility has showed dramatic recent improvement, with only nine active cases, which Gautz said MDOC hopes is a trend that will be bolstered by the start of vaccinations.
Newberry became the first facility to forego weekly testing, Gautz said, after the first two weeks of January passed with no new cases.
Of 1,051 people incarcerated there, 853 have tested positive for the virus, though data shows there is only one active case.
A vaccination clinic took place inside Kinross and another Upper Peninsula facility, Chippewa, on Thursday, Gautz said. Similar clinics took place Wednesday inside Adrian, Jackson, Newberry and St. Louis facilities.
Vaccines arrive in batches of 100, vaccination is voluntary, prison staff are assisted by the Michigan National Guard and priority is given to those incarcerated who are 65 or older, Gautz said.
Any remaining vaccines are offered to younger prisoners who have underlying health conditions such as COPD, hypertension, chronic kidney disease, diabetes or obesity — any chronic condition that puts them at higher risk for a severe form of the disease.
Gautz said criticism from the general public over health care for incarcerated people is not new, and when aimed at vaccinations, can be short sighted.
“These are people who live in a congregate setting and our employees work in that same congregate setting,” Gautz said. “They go home and they may have elderly parents, they may go to the grocery store, they may go to church, they may have kids who go to school.”
“We’ve seen the numbers,” Gautz added, “we know we have had outbreaks and for everyone who lives or works in that setting, vaccination is the best way to slow the spread.”
Most of those incarcerated will go home someday, too — including Anderson, who has yet to be assigned a parole agent or a re-entry house, Hicks said.
Spaces in Traverse City are hard to come by, Hicks said, and she’s hoping Eddie can be paroled to her home, instead of being sent to a re-entry house in Detroit, one of the only cities with availability.
Hicks isn’t worried about catching the virus from Eddy — she was diagnosed a few weeks after her son was, fell quite sick but recovered.
“He’ll have a GPS monitor and an alcohol monitor that could send him right back but he’s done with that and is excited about coming home,” Hicks said. “I talked with him a couple days ago. He sounds positive.”