Senate holds hearing on IDOC response to COVID-19

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — State lawmakers held a hearing Friday morning on the Illinois Department of Corrections’ mittimus processing, education program and COVID-19.

Acting director Rob Jeffreys told a panel of senators the overall population of Illinois’ prisons has decreased 19% from March 1 to December 1.

As of December 18, a total of 410 staff and 1,182 inmates statewide currently have COVID-19. 2,702 staff and 4,911 inmates have recovered from the virus. A total of 57 inmates and one staff member have died.

A unique infections control challenge

“To be quite frank, we are still on the first surge,” Jeffreys told State. Sen. Pat McGuire after McGuire asked if IDOC facilities were experiencing a second surge of the virus. “We’ve been at this for 284 days, and we’ve had peaks and valleys throughout the whole time.”

Jeffreys said correctional centers present a “unique” infections control challenge.

“The department is taking aggressive steps to protect our staff, protect individuals that are incarcerated, by implementing surveillance and outbreak mitigation testing strategies,” he said.

As WCIA reported on Monday, the outbreak mitigation testing strategies include testing everyone in a facility that’s deemed to be experiencing an outbreak every three days, until no new cases are confirmed for 14 consecutive days.

Danville Correctional Center outbreak

IDOC officials said the Danville Correctional Center implemented the mitigation testing plan on Wednesday, at which point the facility had 38 current staff and 119 current inmate COVID-19 cases confirmed. As of Friday evening, the number of staff battling the coronavirus remained the same, while the number of inmates with positive cases jumped to 146.

Cragg Hardaway was just released on parole Tuesday, December 8. He said he had developed a cough prior to leaving the correctional center, but was not tested for COVID-19. It wasn’t until he went to urgent care, where an x-ray revealed fluid on his lungs, that he was tested. The results came back positive.

“I was glad that I found out on this side of freedom, as opposed to still being incarcerated,” Hardaway said. Still, he was scared that he may have exposed family members that he visited upon his release.

“I felt horrible,” he said. “Everybody started to go get tested. So far, we haven’t had a positive result. So that’s good.”

Hardaway said he called his cellmate’s mother to let her know her son was exposed to the coronavirus. He’s now awaiting test results as well.

Hardaway said the warden is doing the best she can and that she has implemented strict policies, but not everyone has followed them.

Vacancies throughout IDOC

Jeffreys said the agency has experienced staffing issues throughout its facilities this year. Some have vacancy rates ranging from 15 to 30%.

“And then when we do contact tracing, if we identify several officers who are positive, or you know, who would test positive, that puts a burden on the remaining staff,” Jeffreys said.

IDOC has had to bring in staff from other facilities in those scenarios.

Mass testing moving forward

Sen. McGuire inquired about the possibility of IDOC using the University of Illinois’ SHIELD saliva testing program.

“The saliva test is undeniably something that the state of Illinois should be proud of,” McGuire said. “I would hope that our Illinois Department of Corrections would have access to that test at some time.”

“This test currently doesn’t have emergency use and is currently not FDA-approved,” Jeffreys responded. “And so it’s not approved for us at this time. So, we’re following the guidance from IDPH and Centers for Disease Control. We are not at liberty to administer something that has not been approved for our testing.”

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