Montana's number of inmates with COVID-19 is 'misleading,' lawmaker says

Montana's number of inmates with COVID-19 is 'misleading,' lawmaker says

Locked Housing

Items for a shower kit at the high-security locked housing unity at the Montana State Prison.

Montana Department of Corrections Director Reginald Michael on Tuesday told a state legislative committee the agency's "greatest success" is seeing just two positive COVID-19 cases for those in state custody. But a lawmaker questioned that characterization, given how few inmates — just seven — have been tested.

"The numbers at this point have been our greatest success," Michael told the state Law and Justice Interim Committee during its agency oversight hearing on Tuesday. "The number before you, it represents something I will tell you other state corrections departments are not experiencing. There are a few, but not many of our states have numbers similar to the numbers we have in front of you."

Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, however, called the statistic "misleading," considering just seven — less than 1% — have been tested out of 1,800 inmates locked in secure corrections facilities. The number of those tested was not included in the agency's presentation, but came forth when Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, asked for it. 

Michael told the state Law and Justice Interim Committee during an agency oversight hearing on Tuesday that no positive cases have emerged from within the state's correctional facilities, and tests have been administered only to those who are experiencing symptoms, as recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. The two who have tested positive, Michael said, were in custody at a pre-release center in Gallatin County.

The director did say he was concerned, however, what broader testing practices may reveal. Gov. Steve Bullock has promised testing capacity for the Department of Corrections to soon reach 772 tests per month, 15% of which will be allotted to staff, while the remaining 85% will be administered to inmates. These tests will be conducted on those not showing any symptoms, as a measure to gauge the actual infection rate within the prison system. 

Three staff, including one DOC employee and two employees at DOC-contracted facilities, so far have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, as well, Michael said, although employees typically get tested through their primary care provider outside of the facilities at which they work. Seventeen DOC employees have reported getting tested, while 24 employees at DOC-contracted facilities have reported getting tested, according to Tuesday's testimony.

Michael told the committee he is concerned about what may come after speaking with Corrections Department directors in other states who have begun testing inmates beyond those showing symptoms. Another state "very near to us," Michael said, recently administered 480 tests, with more than 50% coming back positive. Another state, according to Michael, administered more than 800 tests and yielded positive results in more than 80%.

"I am hoping and praying that we don't have similar percentages to places like that," Michael told the committee. "But I would not be shocked if we do have some positive tests that come up."

In March, DOC spokesperson Carolynn Bright told the Missoulian that the agency received eight inmates that month from other states, including Idaho, as well as Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Washington. Four inmates were transferred to Montana facilities in February, coming from California, New Mexico and Ohio. 

Bright on Thursday told the Missoulian the state "near us" to which Michael referred was Colorado. No inmates have been transferred to the Montana Women's Prison from the states Michael spoke of, Bright added, but she was still unclear about the Montana State Prison, where men are held, at the Missoulian's press time.

Bright also said the DOC has received the tests to begin testing those without symptoms, which officials have referred to as "sentinel" testing, and will begin administering those tests in the coming weeks.

Sands, in light of the low test numbers in Montana and high case counts revealed by widespread testing in other states' prisons, asked Michael on Tuesday what plan is in place to prepare for such a pileup here. Michael told the committee there is no written plan in place, but said DOC officials have talked about purchasing trailers to isolate and treat COVID-19 patients separately from the prison population.

"It's good to see we have such low tests proving positive now but given that we have tested so few, that is, I think, very misleading," Sands told Michael.

"The department also looks forward to beginning sentinel testing as it will allow us to monitor a cross-section of staff and/or offenders for the virus," Bright said Thursday when asked to respond to Sands' comment. "By testing groups of individuals who reside in higher-risk, congregate settings (like correctional facilities), who do not demonstrate active symptoms (asymptomatic), we are able to detect and respond to the transmission of the COVID -19 virus. This testing can guide response efforts and better protect offenders and employees alike."

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