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Ohio prisons using wastewater data to predict outbreaks of COVID-19

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Annette Chambers-Smith
Posted at 3:41 PM, Sep 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-29 15:41:33-04

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation is using wastewater data to create plans for outbreaks that could occur in the state’s prisons.

In June, Ohio prison officials and the EPA began collecting wastewater in one prison as part of the study, later expanding the program into collection at three Ohio prisons.

Annette Chambers Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said once testing of wastewater began, data revealed there was a direct correlation between the spread of COVID-19 in the prison with what was found in wastewater.

Officials from the Ohio Department of Health said they start to see an increase in coronavirus ribonucleic acid (RNA) fragments about four to seven days prior to seeing an increase in actual confirmed cases.

"We’re currently have seen increases in about six cities over the last several weeks and most recently in three cities across the state," said Rebecca Fugitt, assistant chief for the Bureau of Environment Health and Radiation Protection at the Ohio Department of Health.

Currently, the ODH is monitoring wastewater in about 36 cities across the state, with plans to increase that number by 25 within the next month.

Chambers said the monitoring of wastewater for RNA fragments has been critical in providing an early warning system to prison staff so they can decide how many cohorts can be together and whether or not visitations can happen in a safe way.

Beginning Oct. 6, prison staff will be required to get tested for COVID-19. Chambers said testing will be on-site as a way to make it easier for staff to receive a test.

“When we have a staffing shortage, and people are working double shifts, so the last thing you’re trying to do is go somewhere in the community and get a test,” Chambers said. “We have a very hard-working staff, they’ve been doing a great job. And what we want to do is bring the testing to the facility all the time so they can get it while they’re on duty. You don’t have to miss a beat or take any other personal time to do it.

As of Tuesday, 79 prison staff and 266 people living in prison have tested positive for COVID-19.

In the coming weeks, Chambers said medical staff who work in the state's prisons will also administer flu vaccinations for both staff and inmates.

RELATED: NEO Regional Sewer District among several wastewater treatment plants being tested for COVID-19

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