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COVID-19 outbreak in a state prison: a case study on the implementation of key public health recommendations for containment and prevention.



People incarcerated in US prisons have been disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. That prisons are such efficient superspreading environments can be attributed to several known factors: small, communal facilities where people are confined for prolonged periods of time; poor ventilation; a lack of non-punitive areas for quarantine/medical isolation; and staggeringly high numbers of people experiencing incarceration, among others. While health organizations have issued guidance on preventing and mitigating COVID-19 infection in carceral settings, little is known about if, when, and how recommendations have been implemented. We examined factors contributing to containment of one of the first California prison COVID-19 outbreaks and remaining vulnerabilities using an adapted multi-level determinants framework to systematically assess infectious disease risk in carceral settings.


Case study employing administrative data; observation; and informal discussions with: people incarcerated at the prison, staff, and county public health officials.


Outbreak mitigation efforts were characterized by pre-planning (e.g., designation of ventilated, single-occupancy quarantine) and a quickly mobilized inter-institutional response that facilitated systematic, voluntary rapid testing. However, several systemic- and institutional-level vulnerabilities were unaddressed hindering efforts and posing significant risk for future outbreaks, including insufficient decarceration, continued inter-facility transfers, incomplete staff cohorting, and incompatibility between built environment features (e.g., dense living conditions) and public health recommendations.


Our adapted framework facilitates systematically assessing prison-based infectious disease outbreaks and multi-level interventions. We find implementing some recommended public health strategies may have contributed to outbreak containment. However, even with a rapidly mobilized, inter-institutional response, failure to decarcerate created an overreliance on chance conditions. This left the facility vulnerable to future catastrophic outbreaks and may render standard public health strategies - including the introduction of effective vaccines - insufficient to prevent or contain those outbreaks.

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