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Illinois has tested fewer than 2% of inmates for COVID-19

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CARBONDALE — Fewer than 2% of Illinois’ prisoners have been tested for COVID-19, though thousands have been quarantined across multiple facilities because of potential exposure and 11 have died, according to information released by the Illinois Department of Corrections.

This low level of testing has raised alarm among advocates and lawmakers. They say it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to understand the true picture of the outbreak in Illinois prisons and respond to it appropriately. That includes taking steps to contain the outbreak and limit its spread into the communities where prisons are located, which are oftentimes rural and may have limited hospital capacity.

About 186 inmates and 160 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 according as of Friday, according to IDOC’s website. Of those individuals, the vast majority have recovered: 119 staff and 146 inmates.

Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, acknowledged that access to testing has been limited, and best practices have been slowly evolving. “One could only hope that these low numbers reflect that reality, that they just didn’t have the materials and equipment and tests to be able to do this,” Yohnka said. “Going forward, we think it’s really critical that IDOC make testing in the facilities a priority.”

At its Central Illinois facilities, IDOC's website on Saturday showed one staff member at Danville confirmed and another recovered; at Logan, four staff confirmed, three recovered, and one inmate confirmed; at Pontiac, five staff confirmed, two recovered, one inmate confirmed and one recovered.

Republican state Rep. Terri Bryant, a retired prison worker from Murphysboro, said she also has pressed the department to increase its testing, beginning with correctional officers, and then the inmate population. “It might change some of the data we’re looking at for how to address the issue going forward,” she said.

Other Midwestern states have taken far more aggressive steps to test for COVID-19 inside their prisons, and contain the spread. Ohio, for instance, has tested nearly 7,000 inmates, about 15% of its prison population. Three-fifths of those tested have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to a publicly available online dashboard from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s website.

On May 1, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced a plan to test all inmates and staff at his state’s prisons after more than half of inmates and staff tested positive at a prison in Hartsville.

And in Kentucky on Tuesday, Gov. Andy Beshear said that all inmates and staff were tested at a correctional facility in Muhlenberg County after an outbreak was identified. Of the 625 cases of COVID-19 reported that day for the state, nearly half were attributed to the prison, according to local media reports. Beshear was asked if the state waited too long to test everyone, given that the outbreak began on March 25, according to a report by Spectrum News 1. The governor described the mass testing as an “extra step” — one that “most other governors out there aren’t doing” at prisons.

Illinois has not been mass testing at prisons, even when outbreaks are identified among some staff and inmates.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said that “the more testing we have available to us, the more we will be testing in all of those congregate settings.”

“But remember, we also have nursing homes, we also have these developmentally disabled homes and so many other areas that also need testing. So again, it takes a lot more testing than we have today,” he said during his televised press conference Monday.

IDOC spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said the agency is conducting “targeted and deliberate testing” based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the “most recent evidence available.”

Hess said the goal with testing is “properly and adequately responding to results and providing the best care possible within a correctional health care environment.”

“If an offender becomes symptomatic with fever, cough, or difficulty breathing (influenza-like illness) they are assumed to be at high risk for COVID-19,” Hess said in an emailed response. “​Pursuant to CDC and IDPH (Illinois Department of Public Health) guidelines, these individuals are isolated and tested. Exposed asymptomatic offenders are quarantined and monitored for symptoms.”

The biggest known outbreak in an Illinois prison has been at Stateville in Will County. There, 121 prisoners have tested positive, and more than 1,300 were quarantined, according to a spreadsheet that IDOC provided to lawmakers. The vast majority of those who tested positive have recovered, and 11 have died at Stateville.

Other facilities have quarantined large numbers of inmates where some inmates have tested positive. For instance, at Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, 13 inmates have tested positive and more than 1,500 have been quarantined. At Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, one inmate has tested positive and more than 1,400 have been quarantined.

In other facilities, inmates have not been quarantined to the same degree when there have been at least some cases of inmates tested positive. For instance, at Sheridan Correctional Center in LaSalle County, 12 inmates tested positive, and 20 were quarantined. According to IDOC’s website, all of the inmates at Sheridan who tested positive have recovered.

IDOC has previously declined to provide up-to-date information about testing numbers per facility even as a growing chorus of advocates have asked the agency to make this data public as Ohio does. IDOC’s response to members of the General Assembly on Monday shed some light on the situation. The agency wrote that it only had only been receiving complete data for inmate testing from the University of Illinois labs. But for tests conducted elsewhere, “there was no central reporting.”

“IDOC had to build our own database to attempt to capture all information,” the agency wrote.

Further, the agency wrote in the memo that IDOC does not track employee testing. “Staff are tested at a variety of locations, mostly through their private providers and they are not required to report this information to IDOC,” the agency said.

Jobi Cates, executive director of the Chicago-based Restore Justice, which advocates for criminal justice reform, said the state should follow the same guidance for its prisons as the Illinois Department of Public Health gives to long-term care facilities. “We know that when one person is infected in long-term care, they treat the facility as though everyone is infected.” Cates said it seems that the wardens at Illinois’ 28 correctional institutions are not all taking the same approach. Cates said she understands that testing capabilities may still be limited, but said that IDOC should be testing a greater percentage of inmates that it is currently. “We’d like to see at least some testing at every facility, even if it’s not at the level we’d like,” she said.

What is happening in other states that have done widespread testing in prisons reveals that they are “just vectors for the spread of the disease,” said Yohnka, of the ACLU. “We think it’s critical to test in these facilities, and test prisoners.” Yohnka said that’s important not only to protect the health and safety of the community, but also because of how an unknown outbreak could affect the broader community.

“What we’re seeing in Illinois and across the country is that when you have an outbreak in a facility, you end up with that spread going to the community that surrounds it because of guards and personnel going home, or to the supermarket,” he said.

Pantagraph staff contributed to this report.

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