CHARLESTON — More than seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, West Virginia has had among the nation’s fewest prison inmate cases. But with warnings of a coming wave and widespread “COVID fatigue,” the state is resolved to keep up its guard.
West Virginia prisons have had the 10th-lowest number of inmate infections among states and the federal system, according to data tracked by The Marshall Project in partnership with The Associated Press. The W.Va. Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation has so far reported 337 confirmed inmate cases in its prisons. Among 44 states with available figures and the federal system, West Virginia has the 16th-lowest rate of cases per 100,000 inmates.
“I think it’s a reflection of the comprehensive plan we put in place at the onset, and the work that everybody in Corrections has been doing,” Corrections Commissioner Betsy Jividen said. “We couldn’t do it without the great cooperation that we’re getting from all of our partners, and the cooperation of the population.”
Jividen credited the ongoing support from Gov. Jim Justice and Secretary Jeff Sandy, whose Department of Homeland Security includes DCR, as well as the W.Va. National Guard and Department of Health and Human Resources.
“We’re also working with the local health departments in every county where we have a facility,” Jividen said. “I’m glad to give a shout-out to this cooperative effort and to all these people who deserve a share of the credit for this.”
DCR posts testing results and related information daily for all of its facilities on West Virginia’s main website for its COVID-19 response, coronavirus.wv.gov. West Virginia reported the state’s first COVID-19 case on March 17, and its first inmate positive was confirmed just over two months later.
The Marshall Project and AP data does not include jails, which in West Virginia are operated by DCR. The state’s 10 regional jails have so far seen 75 infected inmates, with no cases active. Only 10 of the prison inmate cases were still active as of late Monday, all at the Martinsburg Correctional Center. There have been three confirmed inmate deaths systemwide: two from the Mount Olive Correctional Complex and one from the South Central Regional Jail. All three individuals died while receiving care at outside hospitals.
Jividen and her leadership team developed and implemented DCR’s COVID-19 response plan in March, embracing the key recommendations and guidelines from DHHR and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The plan’s ongoing measures include restricted movement between facilities, required screenings at all entrances, and medical isolation and quarantining when necessary including for all admissions.
“We’ve done repeated rounds of enhanced testing of the entire population,” Jividen said. “We’ve been doing contact tracings in coordination with the local health departments. We’ve been doing targeted testing in response to those results. We monitor and test as appropriate, as needed, as recommended.”
DCR has recently begun randomly testing 10 percent of its facility staff every week, mindful of community spread’s role in the pandemic. Four staff systemwide are currently positive, while another 159 DCR and contract employees have recovered.
Facility correctional officers, staff and leadership have proved crucial to preventing or limiting COVID-19 from entering the state’s prisons, jails and juvenile centers. Already carrying out one of the toughest jobs in the state, DCR’s employees continue to handle all those inherent challenges in addition to the daily fight against COVID-19.
Jividen said she hopes the dedication of the men and women of Corrections help inspire their fellow West Virginians to keep following the guidance from Gov. Justice and the CDC.
“We are working hard every day to keep up our vigilance,” Jividen said. “We know we have challenges we’re trying to meet. We know that we have some dark days possibly ahead of us. We must not let our guard down.”