ALBANY — The results of COVID-19 tests conducted on more than 1,100 New York inmates have been listed by the state prison agency as incomplete for the last two weeks.
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, like other prison agencies across the nation, has found itself scrambling to deal with challenges in protecting both inmates and staffers from the potentially lethal contagion that is especially threatening to dense populations in confined spaces.
For several weeks, the agency had been providing daily updates on inmate infections and deaths at the various prisons throughout the state.
As of July 9, the last time the agency updated its COVID-19 reports, a total of 545 inmates had tested positive for the virus, with 16 infections resulting in death. A total of 495 of those who had been infected were listed as having recovered.
But as of Wednesday night the status of another 1,118 inmates who have undergone testing was uncertain. Those test results for the past two weeks have been listed as "pending."
A prison agency spokesman, Thomas Mailey, said the department has initiated a concerted effort to regularly test inmates who are 55 or older. The virus, statistics from numerous countries show, has been generally more lethal among older individuals.
Mailey said the agency expects to provide new testing data later this week.
Meanwhile, while they did not address the inmate testing issue specifically, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and two of his high-ranking aides, Melissa DeRosa and Gareth Rhodes, all stated coronavirus testing results are generally learned in New York within two or three days after the infection checks are administered.
Cuomo, in a conference call, said testing lags that have hampered virus surveillance efforts in other states have not afflicted New York lab. This has allowed New York to get a more accurate, up-to-date snapshot of infection trends, and respond accordingly, he said.
Rhodes said the median "turnaround" time in New York — the period from when a test is taken to when results are determined — has been about two days.
The results of some 67,000 tests were fielded by state officials from labs Tuesday, Rhodes noted.
"The majority of tests that are coming back in New York are coming back in a much shorter time line, and the state is doing everything it can to manage which labs these tests are going to so we can direct these specimens to labs that have the capacity to run on much shorter lag time," Rhodes told reporters.
When there are outbreaks of the infection, Rhodes said, the state has called on Wadsworth Laboratory, a branch of the state Department of Health, as it can run up to 1,000 tests per day and discern the results within 24 hours.
"We have done that with a number of different communities across the state when we wanted immediate results in an effort to identify, monitor and try to control cluster-type situations," Rhodes explained.
But it remained unclear why the effort to get rapid results was apparently not being applied to state prisons.
A criminal justice reform advocate, David George, organizer for the Release Aging People in Prisons Campaign, said the delay in determining COVID-19 test results for inmates raises significant questions about the state's willingness to protect the incarcerated population from the virus.
"The Cuomo administration has proven time and time again that they don't care about or prioritize incarcerated people and their families," George said.
Since the pandemic reached New York in March, Cuomo has used his clemency powers only three times to release inmates with health vulnerabilities, George said. The acknowledgement by the governor and his aides that the state can get test results within a few days further illustrates what he called a lack of "will" to protect the health of inmates and those working in prisons, he said.
Mailey said in a statement his agency does virus testing on inmates who display infection symptoms, those quarantined as a result of contact tracing, all inmates held at five regional medical units and inmates at the Ulster Correctional Facility senior living dorm. In addition, the state also tests all pregnant and postpartum female inmates at the Bedford Hills prison as well as inmates who are 55 or older.
"The Department continues to comply with CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guidance and in consultation with DOH (Department of Health), continues to evaluate all options for additional testing in response to this public health crisis," Mailey said.
Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, a former state corrections officer who has several state prisons in his North Country district, said he would like to see the prison agency accelerate COVID-19 testing.
"We need to get these results back as quickly as we can," Jones said, "because this virus can spread in densely populated, confined areas."
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com