Michigan National Guard tests all UP prisoners for COVID-19, now focused on rest of state prisons

May 15, 2020


National Guard members stand outside a UP correctional facility before testing all the prisoners
Credit Michigan National Guard

Michigan is working with the National Guard to test all inmates in state prisons. It’s one of the first states in the country to do widespread coronavirus testing in prisons, which have become hot spots for the virus.

On May 4, the National Guard started by testing all 7,500 prisoners in the Upper Peninsula. 

The first Michigan prisoner tested positive for COVID-19 on March 23.

They were held at Kinross Correctional Facility in Chippewa County, but likely became exposed to the virus at a hospital, while seeking treatment for a different condition, the Michigan Department of Corrections says.

There wasn’t much threat of the inmate spreading the virus at Kinross, because he was sent to another facility, but it immediately concerned David Jahn, the president and CEO of War Memorial Hospital in Sault Ste Marie. His hospital is 20 miles away from two state prisons that house about 4,000 inmates.

“Eighty percent of people that have the virus are asymptomatic or have very little symptoms,” Jahn says of one prison tested downstate. “Some positive prisoners (have COVID-19) up here, we better check the rest of them.”

Jahn says his hospital has six Intensive Care beds and 11 ventilators. During the coronavirus pandemic, he’s already lost several nurses. They were forced to work at a hospital closer to their home in Canada when the border tightened.

“If you had a good number of prisoners that needed hospitalization that would overwhelm us pretty quickly,” Jahn says.

COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed in prisons across the country over the last few weeks. 

As of May 15, 2,197 Michigan prisoners were infected, and 55 lost their lives to the virus.

Chris Gautz, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections, says by early-to-mid-April the department realized there was an urgent need for widespread testing.

“A day can make a difference,” he says. “We have had cases literally where a prisoner feels fine one day, sometimes feels fine up until just a few minutes before they’re gasping for breath. And so it’s very important for us to know because how contagious this virus is and how quickly it can move and spread and attack, that we need to know exactly who’s positive and who’s negative.”

By then, the MDOC already knew about two cases at two of its six prisons in the UP. They stopped most transfers and enforced strict social distancing. If an outbreak spread, they had a plan to move infected UP prisoners to facilities equipped for medical isolation.

“We have the capacity that we need if we need to move prisoners downstate,” Gautz says. “We’ve established four different housing units that just house positive prisoners.”

But the MDOC didn’t have the manpower to get all that testing done, until they heard from the National Guard. A team located in UP volunteered to help. 

Because they had trained medics and personal protective equipment at the ready, they were able to work fast. They tested thousands of prisoners for COVID-19, sometimes knocking out an entire facility or two in a day. The MDOC, by comparison, took four days to test one prison.

The Michigan National Guard poses before beginning testing at a facility
Credit Michigan National Guard

The Guard works in fifteen teams of three to test inmates.

A National Guard medic takes a nasal swab, which is logged by another guard while a third supervises, making sure all PPE is worn and properly sanitized. 

Later, an MDOC courier drives the materials over the Mackinac Bridge down to Grand Rapids, where the samples are tested in a lab.

Gautz says all the testing of prisoners in the UP should cost the MDOC almost $400,000.

There are just a few tests still pending, but so far they haven’t found any more positive cases, besides the two they were already aware of.

Still, Gautz says it was worth it for their own coronavirus response, but also for the community’s peace of mind.

He says the National Guard and the MDOC did such a good job in the UP, they hope to test the rest of the state’s prisons by May 22.