Health and Medicine

Correctional facilities are Virginia’s landlocked cruise ships

“Let my people go.” -Moses

By Drs. Scott Heysell and Rebecca Dillingham

In February, the Diamond Princess cruise ship, quarantined in the port of Yokahama, Japan, harbored the largest cluster of people with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-COV-2), outside of mainland China.

As the global pandemic has spread, COVID-19 outbreaks have been associated with more than 25 additional cruise ship excursions. Features of a cruise ship — including crowded congregate areas, “high-touch” shared surfaces and passengers’ limited ability to disembark — create an environment where infectious diseases such as COVID-19 can be easily transmitted from person to person.

Yet last week, Cook County Jail in Chicago became the nation’s largest-known single source of COVID-19, exceeding that of any cruise ship or the outbreak on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt.

Virginia currently detains around 60,000 people in conditions that, from the perspective of rapidly transmitting viruses like COVID-19, are similar to landlocked cruise ships. The people incarcerated in and working for the 41 state prisons, 72 local and regional jails and nine secure juvenile facilities are at serious risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. This risk of transmission extends to the communities that support these correctional facilities.

Distinct from the ocean-going cruise ships that voyage with well-equipped medical personnel and ample supplies for cleaning and disinfecting, correctional facilities in Virginia are overcrowded and medical care is often substandard.


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