NJ county jail screening all inmates for COVID-19 using new testing method

All inmates and detainees at the Essex County Correctional Facility will be tested for COVID-19 using an antibody blood test that can deliver results in 15 minutes


By Joe Atmonavage
NJ Advance Media Group

NEWARK, N.J. — All inmates and detainees at the Essex County Correctional Facility will be tested for COVID-19 — whether they have symptoms or not — using a recently approved antibody blood test that can deliver results in 15 minutes, according to the county.

The correctional facility is set to receive nearly 2,800 testing kits over the next two weeks and will then house individuals based on whether they have been exposed to the novel respiratory virus or not, county officials said in a statement.

Corrections officers arrive for their shift at the Essex County Jail.
Corrections officers arrive for their shift at the Essex County Jail. (Photo/William Perlman of Star-Ledger via TNS)

The jail is the first correctional facility in New Jersey to announce that widespread antibody testing would be available to its incarcerated population, officials said.

The antibody tests will have the ability to determine if individuals are positive and in the early stages of exposure to COVID-19, are positive with the virus but beginning to develop immunity, have developed immunity to the virus after exposure or if the person is negative, allowing the jail to separate inmates based on their test results, officials said.

The kits were purchased by the correctional facility’s healthcare provider, CFG Health Network, and the first round of testing started on April 10, the county said.

Denise Rahaman, the executive director of CFG’s correctional division, said “like all other healthcare providers,” CFG has been reaching out to their suppliers and making arrangements for needed equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic, including testing kits. CFG ordered the tests as soon as it became available in late March, the county said in the statement.

Rahaman did not say how the health network obtained the testing kits and from whom. She said CFG recognized how susceptible employees and inmates at correctional facilities are to the virus.

“Given the challenges associated with this virulent disease, we are making every effort to mitigate this,” she said. “Testing is one avenue used in this process.”

The announcement of the testing comes as advocacy groups and attorneys have been pressuring local and state officials to begin releasing inmates and immigration detainees who are housed in correctional facilities across the state in order to mitigate a coronavirus outbreak. Health officials have warned that jails and prisons are primed for an outbreak, as individuals are housed in closed-quarters and do not have the ability to social distance.

Experts have keyed in on antibody testing as playing a role in re-opening the country and allowing Americans to return to public spaces, but it is still unknown if someone has immunity once they develop antibodies. However, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC News, that is the working hypothesis among medical experts. If that is true, Redfield said it “would give great confidence for some of the public to return to work.”

In a joint statement, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr., Freeholder Board President Brendan Gill and vice president Wayne Richardson, said the county has “undertaken a comprehensive set of initiatives to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus” at the jail, but recognized that testing and social distancing were critical components of doing that. The testing kits will allow them to now do that, they said.

“The rapid blood test will help CFG to immediately identify who has been exposed to the virus so that more aggressive measures can be taken to reduce the amount of people who come in contact with the virus and decrease its transmission,” the county officials said in the statement.

The Essex County jail, which has a total population of more than 1,700, has already released more than 150 inmates and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees housed at the jail in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus, which 52 employees, two ICE detainees and one inmate have tested positive for.

The test, which is called COVID-19 IgG/IgM rapid test cassette, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month. It is performed via a finger-stick for blood.

The testing will be rolled out in stages and administered based on the availability of the tests, the county said.

The first group that will be tested using the kits is those who are showing symptoms of the virus. The jail has nearly 100 individuals currently held in separate units designated for symptomatic individuals.

On Monday, 25 individuals were tested using the new testing kits. According to the county, three ICE detainees tested positive for COVID-19, while 13 others tests revealed they had developed immunity to the virus after exposure and can be re-introduced to the general population. The other nine tests came back negative for the virus, according to the county.

The second group of inmates/detainees to be tested will be those who have pre-existing medical conditions which makes them a higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness. The final group will be those who are asymptomatic.

Correctional officers and staff members at the jail can also get tested upon request, the county said.

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©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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