By Evelyne Kane
From PHN Issue 43, Summer 2020
Since our Spring issue, the COVID-19 (or “coronavirus”) pandemic has presented many new challenges in the U.S. and around the world. As of early July, there have been more than 3 million reported cases and 134,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the USA. Testing and trials to find a vaccine or treatment are ongoing, but it is still unknown when either will be discovered or made widely available. As scientists and health professionals learn more about the virus, they have agreed social distancing (keeping six feet away from others, and/or wearing a mask or face covering when you cannot stay more than six feet apart) is still the best way we know how to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Many scientists now believe that the virus is most likely to spread from close person-to-person contact, rather than from surfaces or through the air (transmission those ways is thought to be possible, but less likely), and that it is easier to spread the virus in indoor areas with poor air circulation than it is in the outdoors. Wearing masks and avoiding close (within 6 feet) contact with other people are the most important ways to avoid spreading the virus. It is still believed that people over the age of 65 and people with pre-existing health issues (including but not limited to: diabetes, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, heart conditions, sickle cell disease, HIV, and anyone with weakened immune systems) are at higher risk of having serious complications from COVID-19. Although COVID-19 can cause serious complications and death, some people have the virus but do not have any symptoms at all. However, people without any symptoms can still spread the virus to others, and may even be more likely to do so if they fail to take extra precautions because they do not believe they are sick. For that reason, everyone should wear a mask, even if they do not believe they are sick. Specific information and recommendations continue to change, so it’s important to look for updates from reliable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Unfortunately, the people who are the most vulnerable to complications are elderly and chronically ill Black, Native American, and Latinx people, especially those in settings like prisons, jails, nursing
homes, acute rehabs, and detention centers. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, people in prison are over five times more likely to get COVID-19 than people outside.
Some correctional facilities have started mass testing (testing everyone for the virus, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms), but most have not. We have heard many reports that correctional facility guards and staff are not wearing masks or adhering to other new safety guidelines, which increases the risk of COVID-19 being brought in from outside prisons.
Across the country, many people in prison are fighting for better health conditions and the immediate release of all incarcerated people, because prisons and jails are not equipped to allow for safe social distancing and sanitation measures. In Pennsylvania, the Free People Strike launched a rolling hunger strike by people who are not in prison to pressure Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to release people from state prisons and ICE detention during COVID-19 and to ensure adequate support to people who remain incarcerated. In California, a group of people incarcerated at San Quentin released a list of demands, including access to COVID-19 testing, masks, and cleaning supplies; free phone calls and video visits and a plan to resume in-person visits; stopping guards from working in more than one section of the prison; stopping all transfers between California prisons and from prisons to ICE detention centers; and reducing California’s prison population to below 50% of capacity. San Quentin had no COVID-19 outbreak until 121 people were transferred from a prison that had a bad outbreak. By early July, one-third of San Quentin tested positive (almost 1,500 people), and 20 people in prison there started a hunger strike in addition to the demands. The San Quentin outbreak’s publicity from the demands and hunger strike resulted in California firing its prison system’s top medical officer because of the outbreak. There have been many small victories along the way, but as conditions remain bad for so many incarcerated people, the struggle is ongoing.