More Ohio prisons reopening for in-person visits as coronavirus infection rates drop

Of 28 locations,10 facilities already are open, and another 11 are set to restart in-person visits

By Marc Kovac
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction plans to reopen more state prison facilities to visitors during the next few weeks.

Of 28 locations,10 facilities already are open, and another 11 are set to restart in-person visits, said Director Annette Chambers-Smith.

Several facilities, including the Northeast Reintegration Center in Cleveland and Lebanon and London correctional institutions, will reopen for visitation yet this month, with others scheduled through April 19.

“We’ve had no transmission from a visitor to an incarcerated person since we started (in-person visits) on Valentine’s Day,” Chambers-Smith said.

The in-person visits are a big change from restrictions put into place over the past 12 months to prevent the spread of coronavirus and a sign of things getting a little more back to normal for the 43,000 inmates who live and 14,000 staff members who work in the state prison system.

“We definitely have hope,” Chambers-Smith said. “We’ve gone from having a thousand people sick at once to having 50 people sick at once.”

Increased staff testing helped reduce prison coronavirus infection rates

A year ago, the prospects seemed more bleak. During the first full month of the declared pandemic, nearly 68% of inmates tested (4,045 of 5,951) were positive for coronavirus. Chambers-Smith herself dealt with a bout of COVID-19 last summer.

And Chambers-Smith had concerns as recently as November about an uptick in cases statewide and inside state prisons.

But infection rates have been on the decline since January. Last month, the inmate infection rate dropped to 4.5%. So far, March’s rate is about 2.4%.

“At this point, I’d have to say we’re doing very well,” Chambers-Smith said. “We kind of rise and fall with the community. Since we’ve been testing our staff weekly, we’ve stayed a little under the community actually.”

As of Monday, only 55 inmates and 52 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19, down from 60 inmates and 60 staff on Sunday. To date, 7,210 inmates and 4,685 prison staff have recovered from coronavirus, while 134 inmates and 10 staff members have died from the disease.

Weekly testing of prison staff has helped lower infection rates, often identifying cases in employees who were not displaying symptoms of the disease, Chambers-Smith said.

“It wasn’t that people didn’t care if they had COVID,” she said. “They didn’t know they had COVID.”

Prisons also implemented wastewater testing for signs of the virus before infections were otherwise evident. Positive results help to shape visitation and other policies at different prison facilities early to prevent outbreaks.

Prison officials target incoming inmates for COVID-19 vaccinations

As infection raves have decreased, so too have restrictions on inmate movement within prisons and on visitors entering facilities.

Most of the current positive inmate tests (41 total) are at the Correctional Reception Center in Orient, one of three locations where new inmates are initially admitted.

Officials are targeting the intake locations for inmate vaccination efforts.

“If we can get these people vaccinated right when they come in the door, we have a better shot at making sure we never have transmission from the reception centers into the other prisons," Chambers-Smith said.

Vaccinations are voluntary and have been offered to inmates and staff based on age and other eligibility criteria set by the state and local health officials.

As of Thursday, 5,493 inmates and 7,276 prison staff members (a little more than half) had received immunizations. Chambers-Smith said officials were trying to better understand vaccination rates among different inmate and staff groups, with hope of promoting increased inoculations.

“I want to figure out what the reluctance is and then make sure we provide education and marketing that’s pinpointed to those groups,” she said.

(c)2021 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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