COVID source callout: Underreported cases in prisons

In a recent story for FiveThirtyEight, I highlighted prisons and jails as one setting highly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks during the Omicron surge. Similarly to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, these places house high numbers of people in close quarters; and many inmates are older adults or have medical conditions that increase their risk of severe symptoms.

Data collected by the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project show that Omicron is, indeed, spreading incredibly fast in U.S. prisons. Some facilities have seen case increases over 1,000% in recent weeks.

Despite these skyrocketing case numbers, the vast majority of state incarceration systems are not doing a good job of reporting COVID-19 cases right now. The UCLA project rates every state in a scorecard from A to F, based on the metrics its department of corrections makes available and a few key aspects of data quality.

As of the most recent scorecard update in October 2021, the majority of states were rated F or D for their reporting on COVID-19 in the incarceration system—the lowest possible grades. It seems unlikely that the situation has improved, even as Omicron heightens the urgency of collecting and reporting data on cases in these highly vulnerable settings. Plus, many of these facilities are not offering vaccines to inmates or are failing to report vaccination data, according to The Marshall Project.

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