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Coronavirus Update: Governor’s lawyer questions why West Virginia should single-out jail population for testing

By Erin Beck, Register-Herald of Beckley

Charleston — While the governor and state coronavirus czar agreed Tuesday that West Virginia needs more COVID-19 testing at prisons and jails, which have been some of the hardest-hit sites across the country, a lawyer for the governor argued that mass testing is not needed.

In neighboring Ohio at the Marion Correctional Institution, officials detected 1,950 inmate cases, or 78 percent of the population had been infected, after the state began expansive testing of even asymptomatic inmates, according to the Marion Star. One guard has died, one prisoner has died, and 34 prisoners have been hospitalized.

Gov. Jim Justice said on April 17 that he was ordering mass testing at nursing homes. Nursing homes have also been among the hardest-hit locations in the country. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch said Tuesday that testing should conclude this week. 

During a virtual COVID–19 briefing Tuesday, Gov. Jim Justice said that moving forward from nursing homes, the state would target other congregate settings. …

“As far as pinpointing our testing, as we move forward beyond the nursing homes, all the things that you said, the African-American community, that’s an area that we need to test,” Justice said. “Our assisted living, our prisons, all the places that we have people that are in a confined-type area and everything.

“Just exactly what you said is exactly where we’re moving as far as the testing in the next steps,” Justice said. …

Then, at the conclusion of the briefing, Brian Abraham, general counsel for the governor, jumped in.

“We are currently testing them,” he said, referring to inmates. “We’ve demonstrated in court in recent weeks that we have proper procedures and plans in place to deal with the prisoners, given the limited testing that’s out there available.”

He asked, “Until we start testing everybody in the public, why would we single out our jail population and give everybody tests?” …

Jennifer Wagner, co-director of the law firm Mountain State Justice, noted people in jails are closely-quartered and less likely to be able to practice social distancing. 

“The largest outbreaks have been at nursing homes and jails across the country,” she said. “And without substantial testing, we can’t know whether there has been a large-scale outbreak and keep both the people who are living in those facilities safe, but also the people who are working in those facilities and then traveling out of those facilities and into communities throughout West Virginia.”

She added that an outbreak in a prison would overwhelm the nearby hospital system, putting the entire community at risk.  …

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