COLUMBUS, Ohio — Gov. Mike DeWine spoke only briefly during Thursday afternoon’s news conference, the last before Ohio’s phased “reopening” begins Friday with non-emergency healthcare facilities.
Instead, he gave most of the briefing over to a new guest: Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, who oversees a prison system now under heavy coronavirus-related scrutiny.
Slightly more than 20% of the 18,027 diagnosed coronavirus patients in Ohio are incarcerated in just three of the state’s prisons: Marion Correctional Institution, Pickaway Correctional Institution and the Franklin Medical Center, a prison hospital.
As of Wednesday, 27 Ohio inmates have died of COVID-19. All were being held at Marion, Pickaway or Franklin, but inmates at 10 other prisons had also tested positive. A Marion inmate, Shannon Kidd, had complained Wednesday to NBC News that officials weren’t doing enough to protect people inside.
“They took our temperature regularly, but they haven’t done anything other than that,” he said, according to NBC. “They’re saying a lot of people are asymptomatic, but there are a lot of guys who don’t want to take this stuff to medical because they feel that nothing is being done.”
The Columbus Dispatch recorded similar complaints from Ohio corrections officers, who said Marion and Franklin each lacked badly needed personal protective equipment (PPE). One described the mood inside Franklin as “utter chaos.”
Chambers-Smith’s description during DeWine’s news conference differed substantially. She said Ohio corrections officials had been implementing widespread changes as early as February, when they began using an H1N1 pandemic plan from 2009 to prepare.
“There’s literally no part of the prison system that hasn’t been touched by what we’re doing to try to deal with this pandemic,” Chambers-Smith said.
The new procedures she listed included changing some prison rules to allow the use of hand sanitizer containing alcohol, allowing prison workshops to manufacture PPE and, at the hardest-hit prisons, taking the temperature of every inmate every day.
Chambers-Smith said many inmates and staff have been divided into 125-person “cohorts” which do not interact with each other, preventing cross-pollination between different areas of each prison. Meals have been reduced to two per day — brunch and dinner — to allow extra time between for sanitizing. Inmates in the same spaces have been told to sleep head-to-foot to create more distance between mouths.
DeWine said about 1.1 million pieces of PPE have been sent to prisons, including N95 masks, cloth masks and gowns. However, Chambers-Smith acknowledged, supply is a problem for everyone in the country.
DeWine said he was confident the state’s prisons were being well-run but acknowledged the possibility that others, if a single inmate or staff member becomes infected, could face the same desperate circumstances as Franklin, Pickaway and Marion.
“Despite all the best practices and good measures in several of our prisons that you’ve mentioned … it’s very difficult to stop it from spreading,” he said. “It’s very difficult. It’s very difficult. We’ve seen how difficult it is in the prisons where it has entered.”
Measures barring visitors and outside contractors are meant to prevent the virus from entering facilities without existing infections. The internal distancing described by Chambers-Smith is meant to protect the greater prison population after cases are discovered.
Will it all work?
“We’ll have to see,” DeWine said. “We can’t predict.”
According to the Ohio Department of Health, 18,027 cases of the virus had been diagnosed by Thursday afternoon. Deaths hit 975.
DeWine said he would extend the state’s stay-at-home order after it expired Friday, making exceptions for those businesses allowed to open but broadly encouraging Ohioans to restrict travel and commerce where possible.
Manufacturing, distribution and construction industries will be allowed to fully reopen — under stringent health guidelines — May 4. Consumer, retail and services industries will follow May 12.