Nearly 3,300 Inmates in Four U.S. State Prisons Test Positive for Coronavirus

As mass coronavirus testing expands in prisons, large numbers of inmates are showing no symptoms, Reuters reported.

In four state prison systems, Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia, 96% of 3,277 inmates who tested positive for the coronavirus were asymptomatic, according to interviews with officials and records reviewed by Reuters. That’s out of 4,693 tests that included results on symptoms.

The numbers are the latest evidence to suggest that people who are asymptomatic, contagious but not physically sick, may be driving the spread of the virus, not only in state prisons that house 1.3 million inmates across the country, but also in communities across the globe. The figures also reinforce questions over whether testing of just people suspected of being infected is actually capturing the spread of the virus.

“It adds to the understanding that we have a severe undercount of cases in the U.S.,” said Dr. Leana Wen, adjunct associate professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University, said of the Reuters findings. “The case count is likely much, much higher than we currently know because of the lack of testing and surveillance.”

Some people diagnosed as asymptomatic when tested for the coronavirus, however, may go on to develop symptoms later, according to researchers, Reuters adds.

The United States has more people behind bars than any other nation, a total incarcerated population of nearly 2.3 million as of 2017 — nearly half of which is in state prisons. Smaller numbers are locked in federal prisons and local jails, which typically hold people for relatively short periods as they await trial.

State prison systems in Michigan, Tennessee and California have also begun mass testing — checking for coronavirus infections in large numbers of inmates even if they show no sign of illness — but have not provided specific counts of asymptomatic prisoners.

Tennessee said a majority of its positive cases didn’t show symptoms. In Michigan, state authorities said “a good number” of the 620 prisoners who tested positive for the coronavirus were asymptomatic. California’s state prison system would not release counts of asymptomatic prisoners.

Each state manages multiple prison facilities. Ohio, for instance, has 49,000 prisoners in 28 facilities. A total 3,837 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus in 15 of those facilities. But the state has not yet provided results on symptoms for 1,809 of them and did not identify the total number of tests conducted across the prison system.

Arkansas and Tennessee have also taken a targeted approach by conducting mass testing in several of their facilities. Michigan, North Carolina, California and Virginia have started with one facility each.

Most state prisons did not provide the age or other demographic details of those who tested positive for the coronavirus, which has killed more than 200,000 people globally, including more than 53,000 in the United States.

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