Seventy-nine inmates jailed in Hampden County facilities and 20 staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a statement Tuesday from Sheriff Nick Cocchi’s office.
The statement said Cocchi recently ordered a precautionary round of testing for all staff and persons in department custody, following spikes in infection rates in Massachusetts and across the nation.
Prisons and jails have emerged as major hot spots of COVID-19 transmission. Among the recent local outbreaks was a spike at MCI-Norfolk, the state’s largest prison.
In Hampden, Cocchi’s office supervises about 1,300 people in various levels of security, including civil commitments, across five facilities in Western Massachusetts, according to the department’s website.
A spokesman for Cocchi said all the positive inmate cases “are at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow. Everyone in custody at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee and the Western Massachusetts Recovery and Wellness Center in Springfield tested negative.”
Once testing was completed across all the Hampden County facilities, AFC Urgent Care, the company contracted for the tests, determined “there were 79 incarcerated individuals and 20 staff members who are currently COVID-19 positive,” said the statement from Cocchi’s office.
According to his office, positive employees are quarantining at home while infected inmates “are showing mild or no symptoms, doing well overall, and in medical quarantine with around-the-clock medical care.”
Cocchi said the positive tests didn’t come as a surprise.
“As correctional institutions are a reflection of the communities they serve, we expected to find positive cases and we did,” he said. “We have staff members and inmates without symptoms who are positive. We now work to bring our positive count back to zero as we did with the previous departmentwide testing, and we will continue to follow the strict [medical] protocols that have kept our institutions as safe as possible throughout the pandemic.”
Well before the CDC recommended mask wearing, the statement said, Cocchi required face coverings for all staff and inmates and followed the public health guidance of Dr. Alysse Wurcel, a Tufts Medical Center infectious disease physician who’s also a pandemic liaison to the Massachusetts Sheriff’s Association.
Every staff member is screened before each shift to ensure they’re healthy and symptom-free, Cocchi’s office said. New detainees also get screened, the statement said, and they’re initially housed in a “first step” medical quarantine unit for at least 14 days.
Cocchi’s office added that, since March, staff has “significantly ramped up” the disinfecting of facilities, transport vehicles, and housing units.
And, his office said, inmates are being granted “a range of free benefits” amid COVID-19 restrictions to protect their health and safety. Those benefits include daily COVID-19 medical screenings and enhanced 24-hour medical care; two hours of free phone calls every week; three free stamped envelopes per week; free video visits; increased meal portions; and weekly movie screenings, according to the statement.
“We are all tired of this virus and the pandemic, but we must remain vigilant because it isn’t showing any signs of slowing or stopping without a vaccine,” Cocchi said in the statement. “It seems that hope is finally on the horizon but until COVID-19 isn’t a threat any longer, we have to maintain ‘this new normal’ for the health and safety of everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us.”
Until mid-October, MCI-Norfolk had weathered the pandemic with only 11 confirmed coronavirus cases. But after a correctional officer tested positive, the virus has swept through the facility, infecting more than 250 inmates and about 20 employees, the Globe reported Friday, citing state data.
Since April, nine state prison inmates have died from COVID-19, prison officials recently told the Globe.
The Department of Correction said it has taken decisive action to protect inmates and staff, based on the latest scientific and public health understanding of the virus.
“As with the broader community, we will be living with the virus until there is a safe and effective vaccine, but the department will continue its strategy of screening, treatment, and containment to reduce its spread and mitigate its most severe health consequences,” a department spokesman said.
Material from previous Globe stories was used in this report.