The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among incarcerated individuals in New York state prisons now exceeds the total cases involving employees, according to new data released by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
DOCCS reports that 1,571 incarcerated individuals have tested positive for the virus. That tops the 1,482 employees who have contracted COVID-19.
Since the department began releasing data detailing the presence of COVID-19 in state prisons, there have been more cases among employees. On April 28, there were 1,026 staff cases and 330 inmates who tested positive for the virus. Six months later, the situation has changed.
A recent outbreak at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in the Southern Tier, has been the main contributor to the spike in cases among the incarcerated population. As of 3 p.m. Tuesday, the facility had 589 confirmed cases — the most in the state prison system.
There have been outbreaks at other prisons, including Cayuga Correctional Facility in Moravia. But after the prison reached 44 confirmed cases last week, there have been no new cases in five days. Aside from the positive cases, 646 inmates at the southern Cayuga County facility tested negative for the virus. There are two pending tests.
With the number of inmate cases exceeding the total among staff, criminal justice groups panned the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"For months, we have seen DOCCS drag its feet and fail to administer tests to incarcerated individuals across our state at the rates we need to contain the spread of this deadly virus," said Alexander Horwitz, executive director of New Yorkers United for Justice. "Put simply, DOCCS' failure to test and prevent these outbreaks will have disastrous consequences for not just those in the prisons, but for the communities that surround facilities across the state."
Horwitz added that "it's time for DOCCS to get serious about testing and develop a transparent and effective plan for how they will do their part to keep your state safe and healthy during this public health crisis."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration faced questions about the COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons on Monday. He praised DOCCS' response to the cases in state correctional facilities and noted that the transmission rate in prisons is lower than the general population.
Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor, told reporters that once they were aware of the situation at Elmira and other state prisons, rapid testing was deployed and all corrections officers and incarcerated individuals were tested.
Anyone who tests positive is isolated and contact tracing investigations are conducted in the same way they would be for cases outside of prisons.
So far, DeRosa said that a majority of cases are asymptomatic.
"We believe that this is a byproduct of community spread," she said. "Where it exists in the community, it's very difficult to keep it out of congregate facilities."
DOCCS has been increasing its COVID-19 testing in prisons. By the end of November, DeRosa said the department will finish testing the entire incarcerated population — more than 36,000 inmates — by the end of November.
"We're taking this very seriously and taking the health and safety of both the prison population and the corrections officers as seriously as we could," she added.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.