Sussex prison joins nearby beach areas as Delaware’s newest coronavirus epicenter

Corrections officials had eliminated an earlier outbreak at the state’s biggest state prison near Smyrna. Now its facility in Georgetown has become a hot spot.

Overhead photo of the prison complex

Sussex Correctional Institution (Del. Dept. of Correction)

While Delaware tries to contain a recent coronavirus outbreak in its treasured Sussex County beach towns, another alarming spike is occurring at the county’s prison for men.

In the early stages of the pandemic, state correctional officials had contained and responded to a spate of 148 cases, mostly at the state prison for men near Smyrna. Seven men died and the rest recovered. By late May the state declared all prisons were COVID-19 free.

That changed July 1, when officials reported the first three cases among incarcerated men at the Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown, known as SCI.

By Monday the number at SCI had grown to 58. As of today, it’s reached 130 and is expected to get higher when more test results are reported next week. Another 17 active cases have been detected among prisoners at the Morris Community Corrections Center in Dover, officials reported Friday.

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In addition to the prisoners, a total of 25 correctional system staffers, including 10 at SCI, have tested positive for COVID-19.

Sussex Correctional Institution in Delaware (Del. Dept. of Correction)

The outbreak at SCI exacerbates the spike at the beaches about 20 miles away.

Earlier this week, public officials reported that about 250 infections had been confirmed during a few days of widespread testing in the popular Rehoboth and Dewey beach tourist areas.

That cluster, which included lifeguards and younger seasonal workers and residents, led Gov. Carney to postpone the scheduled Phase 3 of reopening statewide, and to close beach-area bar areas, dance floors and other places where patrons of taverns and restaurants congregate.

Both the spike at the beaches and the prisons contributed significantly to an uptick of cases in Delaware that spurred Philadelphia and the states of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut to add Delawareans to a list of visitors who should quarantine for 14 days upon traveling there.

Through Friday, Delaware has reported 12,652 cases, including 121 confirmed in the last 24 hours. There have been 517 related deaths.

A total of 58 patients are currently in Delaware hospitals, 11 of them in critical condition. Those numbers that have steadily declined, a trend that health officials cite as promising news.

‘It’s all hands on deck’ at Sussex prison

Department of Correction Commissioner Claire DeMatteis said the vast majority of people with active infections don’t have symptoms, adding that strong measures have been taken to contain the spread at SCI and Morris.

Delaware corrections commissioner Claire DeMatteis says all prisoners at the Sussex prison are being tested to contain outbreak. (WHYY file)

“I am very concerned about this virus,’’ DeMatteis said. “I am very concerned about keeping inmates healthy and about getting them to full recovery. If they test positive it’s all hands on deck. We’re getting very creative and very aggressive in how we are treating this. We showed we can do this and we’re going to do it again.”

She said all 800 men at SCI are being tested, and that should be completed Friday. The 55 prisoners at Morris have all been tested. All results are expected by next week.

Some have been taken to a treatment unit at the state prison and others kept at a new treatment unit at SCI.

DeMatteis added that as a precautionary measure, more than three dozen SCI prisoners older than 60 with underlying conditions who had tested negative also have been moved to the Smyrna prison.

In addition, visitation has been suspended at SCI and no new prisoners are being admitted until further notice.

A cry for masks and testing

Before the outbreak began, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware and the Delaware Center for Justice have urged prison officials to provide face masks to all 4,200 incarcerated men and women statewide — the same protection provided to prison guards and other employees.

But when the current cluster was detected, only about three-quarters of prisoners had been provided face coverings. Now all have been given face masks, prisons spokesman Jason Miller said.

Dubard McGriff of the state ACLU isn’t surprised by the latest prison cluster. He continues calling for universal testing for all prisoners statewide. Except for the prisoners at SCI and Morris, only those with symptoms get tested.

“If a cluster breaks out down there [at SCI], where is the next cluster going to break out?” McGriff asked. “We are dealing with people who are coming in and out of situations and people that work there that are in the community that may be exposed. You’ve got to stay on top of these things.”

Miller said that the state has opted against universal testing based on talks with national authorities on corrections and Delaware prison healthcare provider Centurion.

He said the state’s “rigorous proactive inmate screenings, along with our proactive testing of inmates, contact tracing efforts, aggressive cleaning procedures, and staff screening protocols exceed efforts in other correctional systems and offers the best path to mitigating the risk of COVID in our correctional facilities.”

Dave Bever, executive director of the nonprofit Delaware Center for Justice, said prisons are a natural hot spot for the virus and that more testing is part of the solution to quelling its spread.

“We support any protective measure that DOC would provide and would hope they continue to increase testing,’’ Bever said.

Bever’s group has also called for the release of some prisoners age 60 or older and those with immune deficiencies, as well as those being held because they cannot afford bail or are being held pending their court date for probation violations.

The Carney administration has not made those moves, but Bever said, “We support swift action being taken.”

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