Health Officials Blame Prison For COVID Outbreak In Rural Southeast Georgia
An error in COVID-19 data reporting has obscured an outbreak in a Georgia prison and in the community surrounding it.
The count of coronavirus cases in rural Wheeler County nearly doubled last week when CoreCivic, the Tennessee-based, publicly traded company that runs the Wheeler Correctional Facility, reported 145 cases to the Georgia Department of Public Health, said Nancy Nydam, spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Nydam said most of the newly documented cases occurred in August.
Using the data dump to readjust the historic record, Wheeler County had the second largest change in per capita COVID-19 cases in the state in a snapshot from early August to the present.
Without the data dump, Wheeler County, about 115 miles west of Savannah, was 107 out of 159.
The numbers also give Wheeler Correctional the second highest number of COVID-19 cases of any prison in the Georgia correctional system. Coffee Correctional in Coffee County, also a CoreCivic property, has the most. Together the two prisons account for about 20% of the infections in the Georgia correctional system.
Georgia DPH spokesperson Nydam said the reporting error should be corrected from now on, as required by law.
“While CoreCivic had been reporting COVID positives to the Department of Corrections, they were not reporting to DPH. DPH has spoken with officials with CoreCivic and Wheeler Correctional Facility, and arrangements have been made for positive cases of COVID-19 to be reported directly to DPH as soon as test results are received by the facility,” Nydam said via email.
CoreCivic spokesperson Ryan Gustin said while the company had been communicating their COVID-19 cases to the department of corrections, they had not shared data with state public health officials. Gustin did not provide a reason for the “lapse in communication” by the company with 120 prisons and detention centers spread across 23 states.
CoreCivic has already seen two of the largest prison outbreaks in the country at prisons in Tennessee. There infections found after targeted, widespread testing topped 1,000 at both facilities. At another Tennessee prison run by CoreCivic, infections among about a third of those incarcerated went largely unnoticed as data reporting there fell through regulatory loopholes.
The news comes as the value of a share in CoreCivic has stayed stubbornly stuck at a little over $9, about half its high in 2019, running against the trend of a generally recovering stock market.
Meanwhile, public health workers in the South Central Health District said the cases at large in Wheeler County start at Wheeler Correctional.
“It's looking like almost 100% of those are tied back to the outbreak at the prison," said Melissa Brantley, spokesperson for the South Central Health District.
Gustin of CoreCivic rejected the link of illness in the county to the prison, calling the idea “patently false.”
Eight inmates have died so far at Wheeler Correctional.