In mid-November, a man released from jail arrived at Phoenix House in Springfield, a not-for-profit addiction treatment center that provides transitional housing.
Days later, the jail informed Phoenix House that the man had been exposed to COVID-19 behind bars.
“We received a call from the jail saying that one of our clients who had transferred over approximately five days earlier had been exposed to someone who was positive at the jail,” said Rob Jaszek, senior program director for Phoenix House in Massachusetts. “We immediately had that client and his five roommates all tested.”
The man tested positive, Jaszek said. Then 30 more people at the facility tested positive, including a staffer. It was the first major COVID outbreak at the location, which includes a men’s house and a women’s house, Jaszek said.
With coronavirus again surging at county jails and prisons, health experts continue to worry about community spread when inmates are released. Phoenix House officials would not say which jail had released the man, citing privacy concerns of the individual. (The nearby Hampden County House of Correction, which recently reported a spike in cases, could confirm no release to Phoenix House in mid-November.)
The ACLU has been pushing to release more people from jails, to minimize the spread of the virus behind bars. Those who are asymptomatic can easily spread the virus upon release without more testing.
The state Department of Correction performs tests on prisoners before they are released to group settings such as halfway houses and medical facilities. But the county jails, run by sheriffs, are not held to that standard.
Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney with the ACLU in Boston, said more testing should be required to keep the population behind bars, jail employees and the community safe.
“They should be testing all staff and all prisoners on a routine basis at the houses of correction and at Department of Correction facilities. At a minimum, every one to two weeks, the entire population should be tested,” she said.
The DOC reports that it has administered more than 20,000 coronavirus tests to prisoners and thousands more to staff since the pandemic began. Jails vary dramatically in how much testing they are doing, from relatively little in Suffolk County to thousands in Hampden County.
Phoenix House, for its part, does not test new arrivals for COVID. It does perform screening, including asking medical questions. Mask-wearing and distancing are enforced, officials there said when contacted by WBUR.
But that was not enough to stop the cluster of cases that quickly developed there. Twenty of the infected people were transported temporarily to a state facility in Taunton so they could be quarantined. The others were isolated at the Springfield houses. So far, no one has become seriously ill; all were either symptomatic or experienced mild symptoms, Jaszek said.
Pete Mumma, chief executive of Phoenix House New England, noted that it’s impossible to say for sure that the former inmate was the source of the outbreak. However, he also said he would be in favor of jails and prisons testing inmates before release.
“I think it would be prudent to do that — to test people on the way out,” Mumma said.