In a state Senate hearing Wednesday, state Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel testified before the state Senate Judiciary Committee on how the DOC is mitigating the spread of COVID-19 to all SCIs throughout the state.

In particular, he discussed the particular mitigation efforts that have taken place to curb the outbreak at SCI Huntingdon.

As of May 21, 155 inmates and 47 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. Additionally, 122 inmates have officially recovered and 20 staff members have recovered.

“One individual who was COVID-19 positive, coming into Huntingdon April 9, has led to our most significant outbreak to date,” said Wetzel. “Even with little county impact, SCI Huntingdon had its first inmate positive test result April 20. The inmate had been sent to Penn Highlands Huntingdon for treatment.

“SCI Huntingdon began experiencing staff call offs due to employees reporting COVID-19-like symptoms, and by April 22, the prison had three positive inmate cases and five employee positives reported,” Wetzel added. “As is the case with COVID-19, cases grow exponentially.”

Wetzel explained the difficulties with SCI Huntingdon and effectively quarantining inmates.

“An issue with SCI Huntingdon is that it is an old facility of an old design. Opened in 1889, the facility consists of multiple four-tier housing units that have open-bar cell doors; and all inmate and employee movement travels through a central hub area near the prison’s control center,” he said.

He also detailed additional measures SCI Huntingdon officials have taken to help mitigate the spread.

“On April 26, the entire prison was placed in enhanced lockdown/quarantine, which included limited out-of-cell movement to medical emergencies and screenings of inmate workers, feeding inmates in their cells, etc.,” said Wetzel. “Department of Corrections officials worked to identify staff from other facilities — such as maintenance staff — to report to the prison to assist in converting the gym, other housing areas, a warehouse area and rooms in the education department into isolation areas for the observation and care of inmates ill with COVID-19.

“This conversion was important due to the fact that SCI Huntingdon does not have an infirmary,” he added. “The conversions were done to allow the prison to care for inmates at the prison and not overwhelm the local hospitals. Of course, inmates who need hospital-level care are taken to local hospitals for such care. The prison isolation units have the ability to administer oxygen and intravenous fluids to inmates and to provide nursing care and oversight. Appropriate medical supplies were acquired for and sent to the prison.”

Wetzel said they also reached out to area hospitals to discuss protocols surrounding COVID-19 as well as the protocols for transferring inmates.

“At the same time, SCI Huntingdon and DOC medical staff reached out to local hospitals and EMS to discuss their protocols as well as the DOC’s protocols for the transfer of inmate patients who might become too ill to be managed in the prison isolation areas,” he said. “An understanding of what these systems can and cannot handle was achieved, and the DOC used that information to form contingency plans should they require more assistance than the local medical systems could provide.”

More space was needed to help better separate inmates into smaller groups, so 90 were initially set to be transferred to SCI Phoenix.

“DOC officials decided to move approximately 90 inmates to SCI Phoenix, where there is a standalone, self-contained unit. That unit had been planned as a re-entry unit for female inmates; however, those plans never were finalized. So, DOC and SCI Phoenix officials reconfigured that unit into operation to house SCI Huntingdon inmates, who would be those that are close to being released from prison.

“In preparation for the transfer of the inmates to SCI Phoenix’s Female Transition Unit (FTU), officials tested the selected inmates for COVID-19 May 5. Of the 82 inmates tested, 52 returned positive test results. Only the 18 inmates who tested negative for COVID-19 were transferred to the FTU May 7. The remaining inmates were moved to SCI Huntingdon’s outside service unit, where they will remain isolated until they recover. It should be noted that all of the positive inmates were asymptomatic. Once the inmates in the outside service unit test negative, they will be transferred to FTU.”

DOC spokesperson Maria Finn noted that 84 inmates have been released from SCI Huntingdon since March 30, and that includes completion of sentences, paroles and reprieves.

A total of 151 were temporarily released thanks to the reprieve order, but only seven have since returned to prison for violating the reprieve orders, but have committed no crimes.

Staff relief has been provided to SCI Huntingdon to help the facility function normally, said Wetzel.

“Throughout the entire situation at SCI Huntingdon, DOC staff has assisted the facility by monitoring staff call-offs and providing staffing relief as needed using employees from other state prisons,” he said. “The facility has no staff shortages and continues to operate normally, albeit under an enhanced quarantine facility wide.”

With the move of inmates to SCI Phoenix’s FTU and the remainder of the inmates moved later this month, SCI Huntingdon should experience some relief,” he added.

Wetzel credited all of the DOC staff at SCI Huntingdon and beyond for their leadership and dedication throughout the outbreak.

“Again, this situation had the potential to be significantly worse had it not been for strong facility leadership, and the dedication, creativity and commitment of DOC staff throughout our system, who rallied to get this outbreak under control,” he said.

Kylie can be reached at khawn@huntingdondailynews.com.

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