There is little doubt now that the coronavirus, COVID- 19, will come to Broome County, if it isn’t here already. Are we ready?
It will be a challenge. Broome County ranks 57th in health outcomes among the state’s 62 counties. The County Health division tasked with the surveillance and prevention of communicable diseases has seen its staff cut by 20% and its funding by nearly 30% in the last 10 years. Regional public health centers have closed.
Those most at risk are clear: the elderly, persons with health problems, and the poor. As with the annual flu, they suffer and die the most, especially when institutionalized together. Cluster outbreaks in nursing facilities in China and now Washington state illustrate the danger.
Most vulnerable are those locked in jails and prisons, where the U.S. is the world leader and Broome County has regularly had the state’s highest incarceration rate. What happens when the virus hits the jail, primarily filled with poor persons awaiting trial (and often boarded in from distant federal agencies to make a profit for the county)?
Recent protests, lost lawsuits and federal court rulings have all exposed an excessive death rate and continuous medical failures at the jail. Are there any plans or ability to deal with a health crisis under these conditions? How might suspected cases of COVID-19 be detected? Are there test kits available to check someone with coronavirus-like symptoms? Given the closed confines and packed cells of the jail, is there a plan detailing where those at high risk or diagnosed with COVID-19 might be placed?
How might medical supplies and services be provided to those locked down inside? Will public health workers be able to move in and out of the jail, for the first time? Will persons in life-threatening, respiratory distress be able to be transferred to a hospital? Or are they to be left to die in their double-occupancy cells? Will the UHS doctor who works in the jail continue to move back and forth between the jail and his offices at Wilson hospital?
The lack of planning and denial of basic health services also endangers those who work at or visit the jail. How will the county protect guards, service and medical staff ? And their families and the families of visitors?
Locking down the jail would only serve, as in China, to intensify infection rates inside, and then spread disease into the broader community as guards and service workers move back and forth. It will also create panic, particularly among family members who no longer could contact or see their loved ones. And if lawyers and court officers can’t visit, the whole criminal justice system collapses, condemning those inside to grim futures indeed.
There is an elemental truth here: Our large jail system was built without any link to public health services, and lacks basic evidence-based health care and any effective oversight. For those incarcerated, their families and staff, managing COVID-19 under these conditions will be exceedingly difficult. The failure to plan and provide effective care threatens us all.
–Bill Martin teaches at Binghamton University and is a founding member of Justice and Unity for the Southern T ier (JUST). This was also published as an op-ed in the Press 3/8/20