Just after the state Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced its five-level system for demobilization of all of its state correctional facilities across the state, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Friday that Huntingdon County will be one of eight counties that will move to the yellow phase of the administration’s phased reopening of Pennsylvania Friday, May 29.
As far as what the yellow phase means for the county, there are guidelines specified under the state’s plan.
For work and congregate setting restrictions, telework must continue where feasible, business with in-person operations must follow building safety orders; childcare can open complying with guidance, congregate care and prison restrictions are still in place, and schools remain closed for in-person instruction.
Gatherings of more than 25 people are still prohibited; in-person retail is allowed, but curbside and delivery is still preferred; bars and restaurants are still limited to carry out and delivery, and all businesses must follow the state Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control guidance as much as necessary.
However, places like bars, salons, barbershops, theaters and gyms need to be closed under the yellow guidance.
In a conference call with reporters Friday, Wetzel noted some SCIs will be moving to level 4 of its five-level demobilization plan, which include SCIs Huntingdon and Smithfield.
“As the governor reopens Pennsylvania, we, too, must return to a more normal operation, and get back to preparing individuals to successfully re-enter society,” said Wetzel.
With the outbreak at SCI Huntingdon, many wondered why the DOC didn’t consider mass population testing of all inmates, but Wetzel explained that the accuracy of the current tests, which is 70%, left too much to chance, so they used another strategy.
“If we would test 1,000 inmates, and 10-30% of the people we tested were false negatives, but they’re actually positive, we think we could move them out and share the disease with someone else,” he said. “We do what is called surveillance testing, which is a random sample of enough people on an unit to give us a picture of the reality.”
He detailed an example of an inmate who was ready to be released at SCI Benner, as all inmates are tested prior to release.
“We tested that person, and if they were asymptomatic, then we would get a randomized sample of everyone on the unit where the inmate was, and we would get a percentage from that random sample,” he said. “From that percentage, it projects the likely disease spread at that facility.
At SCI Benner, we did a random sample of 57 inmates after the inmate (scheduled for release tested positive), and we learned they were all negative,” added Wetzel.
The DOC also requires inmates be tested at county jails before they’re transferred to any SCI facility, and inmates are all tested if they’re transferred to another facility, added Wetzel.
At SCI Huntingdon, the strategy was a little different, because, as the outbreak began and exponential spread was apparent, they treated all inmates as if they were positive.
“We had robust checks and balances for our most vulnerable inmates,” he said. “We were temperature testing, testing with a pulse oximeter and screening twice a day to catch everyone at high risk.”
Wetzel said they learned some of their most valuable lessons on how quickly it can spread and some of the ways the virus can spread in their facilities.
“How crowded a facility is is very relevant to the ability to spread it,” he said. “There are some things that played against us at SCI Huntingdon, including the high density, or lack of space between some cells, in some of the housing units.”
Some of the units at SCI Huntingdon are stacked three and four-tiered units with traditional bars on the doors as opposed to doors with plexiglass.
Wetzel also talked about some of the ways it spread once a staff member who tested positive for COVID-19 first entered SCI Huntingdon April 9.
“In addition to barred doors, we also realized if there’s a nexus to food service, that could be a problem,” he said. “We had staff members in food service who tested positive, and there are inmates in food service. That was the mechanism for the disease to spread.”
But, thanks to the quick work of the staff at SCI Huntingdon, they were able to quickly build isolation units so inmates who tested positive could be quarantined and receive care.
“We built three additional isolation units to separate symptomatic cases from the rest of the population to the keep the number of individuals who needed hospitalization down,” he said. “There were a couple of days where it was touch and go.”
Wetzel said he entered into discussions with health systems like Penn Highlands Huntingdon and UPMC Altoona, knowing there was the possibility of potentially overwhelming the health systems in the county and region.
Most people focused on the state’s formula to move to different phases of Wolf’s reopening plan, but that wasn’t the only criteria for moving to different phase.
Another big component was hospital capacity, and thanks to the quick thinking of DOC staff and local health systems, hospitals in the area were not overwhelmed.
“We had discussions as cases were rising, and we thought about the community medical infrastructure,” said Wetzel. “This is where I want to thank both Penn Highlands and UPMC Altoona, but especially UPMC Altoona. We got a call on the weekend (from UPMC Altoona) saying we got your back, and we can make sure you guys get through this.”
Wetzel also noted they needed to make sure this wasn’t a potential threat to local EMS units as well.
While the state released data that shows that 57% of people have recovered from COVID-19, the DOC is able to specifically quantify how many inmates and staff have recovered.
While he wouldn’t speak to advising which counties should move to which phases, Wetzel did ask the DOH and the Wolf administration to take recovery numbers into account and the number of actual active cases at all facilities, including SCI Huntingdon.
The recovery numbers speak for themselves.
As of 3:30 p.m. May 22, 51 staff have tested positive for COVID-19, while 32 have recovered, and 158 inmates have tested positive, while 122 of those have recovered.
The DOC’s full five-level plan for demobilization can be found www.cor.pa.gov/Documents/PA-DOC-COVID-Demobilization-Plan.pdf.