PHILADELPHIA – The City announced today that successful mitigation of COVID-19 will allow the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP) to enter the yellow phase starting June 5, 2020.

The move to yellow in the Philadelphia jails comes after the completion of testing for the entire prison population. To date, 3,855 asymptomatic individuals have been tested at PDP facilities. Test results found that 223 of these asymptomatic incarcerated individuals tested positive—6 percent of the population. By comparison, prison systems in other major municipalities, such as Montgomery County, Pa. and the state of Ohio, had double-digit percentages of asymptomatic inmates testing positive.

“These test results are a testament to the fact that even before the full impact of COVID-19 was felt, Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney and her staff instituted thoughtful and extensive protocols to mitigate the spread of the virus,” said Managing Director Brian Abernathy. “By acting early and decisively, the Department of Prisons helped to safeguard the health of thousands of inmates. This is the lowest infection rate that we are aware of among the prisons across the nation that have conducted universal testing.” (Details on the early intervention by PDP are below).

PDP’s transition to Yellow includes decreasing, gradually over time, stringent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shelter in place restrictions in PDP facilities. Unless in isolation or quarantine, incarcerated individuals soon will be able to spend more time out of cell. Increasingly, routine services will be provided in housing unit common areas and medical offices rather than in each cell. Restrictions will be decreased incrementally to ensure that no new surge of infection occurs.

Of the over 4,000 incarcerated individuals at PDP since the pandemic started, 198 symptomatic inmates tested positive. There is one symptomatic patient currently at PDP.

The asymptomatic inmates testing positive largely were residing in facilities and areas where symptomatic cases had been detected. PDP is in the process of reviewing and analyzing the test results for each facility. Based on this analysis, PDP will be developing plans for the continued mitigation of COVID-19 transmission in each facility.

People with coronavirus can test positive for as many as thirty days, well beyond when they are able to infect other people. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell if an asymptomatic COVID-19 positive person remains infectious so, following CDC guidelines, all 223 asymptomatic inmates with positive tests have been, in an abundance of caution, placed in isolation for 14 days after the date of the test. Also following CDC guidelines, the housing units from which these people were removed have been placed in quarantine.

Given that there have been few new symptomatic cases at PDP for weeks, we do not expect these asymptomatic patients will develop symptoms. Furthermore, all housing units now in isolation or quarantine should be relieved of those restrictions in 14 days.

PDP will continue to test all newly admitted inmates and will continue CDC-recommended screening of employees to prevent the introduction of the virus from the community. PDP will also isolate, for the CDC-required 14 days, anyone who develops symptoms at any time. So far at admission, about 1 percent of new inmates are testing positive but are asymptomatic.

How Transmission of COVID-19 was Mitigated at PDP
From the very beginning of the pandemic in Philadelphia, PDP’s preparation for and response to COVID-19 has been managed by a small, senior team of clinicians and executive staff. This team met seven days a week since the start of the Pandemic to develop needed procedures, secure necessary supplies, and implement CDC recommended procedures in all PDP facilities. Procedures were amended as the CDC learned about the virus and enhanced its recommendations.

PDP followed CDC guidelines for stringent restriction of movement of incarcerated individuals, testing of people who are incarcerated, screening of staff and use of personal protective equipment (PPE). This was a tremendous effort. The main parts of this effort were:

  • Stringent restriction of incarcerated individuals and staff movement.
  • Sheltering in place of every incarcerated person.
  • Prompt use of quarantine and isolation when cases were suspected.
  • Provision of and requiring the wearing of masks by all incarcerated individuals and staff.
  • Delivery of medical services and food at each cell to limit movement.
  • Near constant education of incarcerated individuals and staff using fliers, television and bi-lingual discharge instructions.
  • Continuous sanitation of living areas, e.g., phones and showers sanitized after each person’s use and staff common areas.
  • Provision of extra soap and cleaning supplies for each cell.
  • The screening of all staff for COVID-19 symptoms every time they entered a PDP facility.
  • The screening of all patients who were in quarantine.
  • Adherence to social distancing guidelines as much as possible given the structure of jails.
  • Cessation of social visits and most of the programming provided inside PDP by community agencies.

Over 37,000 masks were produced by PDP during the crisis, and more than 3,700 tests administered.

Special Population Arrangements
PDP has worked closely with the Courts, Public Defender, District Attorney and private attorneys to identify medically vulnerable incarcerated individuals for consideration for early release. This collaboration resulted in more than 800 citizens being granted early release.

All incarcerated people were released with medications, medical discharge summaries, critical public service resource lists and instructions about how to watch for disease symptoms, to self-quarantine if necessary, and where and when to seek medical care if needed.

Housing was assured for COVID-19-positive patients on release, including special accommodations provided by the City for homeless COVID-19 positive citizens who PDP transported the hotel secured for this purpose in Center City.

PDP also set up special procedures to provide, with patient permission, more detailed clinical summaries requested by community programs that were agreeing to accept inmates on release.

Next Steps
PDP will be increasing time out of cell and restoring normal service routines in ways consistent with the “new normal” dictated by the continued risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Incarcerated individuals and staff will be monitored constantly to be sure that spread of the virus does not re-occur. If it does re-occur, PDP will re-introduce restrictions to curb spread of this disease.

PDP thanks the staff, senior clinical team, and contractors who work tirelessly to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The PDP’s response plan initiated from the onset of COVID-19 resulted in having only one new symptomatic case among its census population from May 15 to date, and an asymptomatic population at rates far below those reported by other congregate facilities. These results are a testament to the staff’s commitment to serve during the pandemic and to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.