The Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn is "ill equipped" to identify cases of COVID-19 and stop the disease from spreading among its nearly 1,700 detainees, according to a doctor who visited the federal jail last month.
Homer Venters, a former chief medical officer for the city jails, visited MDC on April 23rd with an attorney for the plaintiffs as part of a lawsuit over conditions at the jail. In a report submitted to the court first reported by The Intercept, Venters said he was “concerned about the ongoing health and safety of the population” at MDC, and condemned the failure of the jail’s officials to take simple steps to identify potentially sick patients and isolate them.
“Not only is MDC ill-equipped to identify cases of COVID-19 within its population, but it has not implemented adequate infection control practices,” he wrote. “In fact, it is my assessment that several current practices in MDC actually promote a more rapid spread of COVID-19 inside the facility and serve to work against some of the infection control measures already in place.”
Venters singled out the jail’s reliance on temperature checks instead of asking inmates about other potential symptoms of the coronavirus, such as cough, fever, and shortness of breath, which he called a “deviation from accepted standards.” He said a sign on the door to one housing area even stated that the number of people with COVID-19 symptoms was zero.
The doctor met with 17 inmates and the jail’s health administrator, and toured four housing units. He found problems with the record keeping of “sick calls,” requests by inmates for medical attention. Between March 13th and April 13th, he said there were 147 calls from people with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. But as of April 28th, the Bureau of Prisons reported, “Inmates tested: 13, Inmates positive: 6, Staff Positive: 30,” which Venters found very low and “may reflect the early stages of exponential growth.” He recommended more testing at the facility.
He also found MDC doesn’t retain the original paper records of an detainee’s sick call or scan them into the person’s electronic medical records. “Without this practice, the health service does not know how many requests were made, and how many were responded to,” he wrote, adding that this practice “appears to be the intentional destruction of medical records.”
Venters found two men who were presumed to have the coronavirus were kept in the same isolation unit as others who didn’t. He said both had made multiple sick calls prior to their isolation and were not given any care for many days, adding that in one case, “nobody has listened to his lungs with a stethoscope during this time.”
Nor had the jail separated inmates with risk factors such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma. In addition, Venters reported observing several correctional staff not wearing gloves or masks.
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The class action lawsuit with six named plaintiffs is seeking the release of medically vulnerable inmates and improvements to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Katie Rosenfeld, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said they are seeking a preliminary injunction to force MDC to begin more thorough screenings, symptom tracking and to follow guidelines for cleaning and personal protective equipment.
As of April 30th, when Venter’s report was filed, Rosenfeld said MDC had tested 13 out of roughly 1,700 inmates. She called that “a dangerously low number of tests,” and said the facility only had 10 testing kits. Over the weekend, the federal Bureau of Prisons sought to strike Venter’s report from the record on procedural grounds but a judge rejected its request. On the BOP’s website, it now says there are zero cases of the coronavirus at the jail.
In its motion opposing the request for a preliminary injunction, the government argued that the named plaintiffs, like other inmates, have alternative methods for seeking early release and home confinement. It said sentenced inmates at MDC can pursue compassionate release from federal judges, and noted that many of those at the facility are being held pre-trial and can make bail applications based on the circumstances presented by COVID-19.
Richard Donoghue, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, is representing the government in the case. He also argued that the Bureau of Prisons already ordered the implementation of an action plan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and that the bureau and MDC “have taken strong measures to reduce the risk” for inmate populations, “increased sanitation and screening, limited visitors, increased testing and improved isolation protocols.”
A federal judge will hear arguments in the case next Tuesday.