NEWARK, NJ — Essex County announced Monday that inmates and ICE detainees being housed at its correctional facility on Doremus Avenue will be screened for the coronavirus, making it one of the first jails in the United States to utilize the recently approved antibody rapid blood test to screen every inmate and detainee.
Officials said the test will help its health provider, CFG Health Systems, identify who has been exposed to the virus so that more aggressive measures can be taken to curb its spread in the close-quarters facility.
“We always have had a great working relationship with CFG and have maintained confidence in the high level of care they have provided to the inmates and detainees at our Correctional Facility. Employing the use of the rapid blood test shows initiative on the part of CFG to be on the cutting edge of health care to use emerging medical science to protect the health and welfare of inmates and detainees,” Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Freeholder Board President Brendan Gill and Vice President Wayne Richardson said in a joint statement.
The correctional facility has been housing inmates with COVID-19 symptoms in special quarantine units, according to the county, which reported 95 inmates and detainees were being kept in quarantine. Thirty-six staff at the jail have tested positive for the virus, according to the same report.
The rapid blood test works much like a blood-sugar test by drawing blood from a finger prick, then delivering results after 15 minutes. CGF put in an order in late March following the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the tests, and the first 35 kits arrived on Friday for the provider to begin testing.
Another 750 kits are scheduled to arrive this week and 2,000 more will arrive next week. New admissions to the facility and those already quarantined were the first to receive tests, while inmates and detainees with pre-existing medical conditions are next in line. The final group to be screened are inmates and detainees who are asymptomatic.
Corrections officers and ECCF staff may also be tested upon request.
ICE has faced significant pressure from New Jersey-based advocacy organizations to release detainees from its immigrant detention centers since the onset of the pandemic. Essex County has an agreement with the federal government to house immigrants picked up by ICE and facing civil immigration violations.
Chia-Chia Wang, organizing and advocacy director for American Friends Service Committee in Newark, said the move to test detainees is a positive step, but it should not stop ICE or the county from releasing detainees.
She added that given the difficulty of controlling the spread of something like a potentially deadly virus in a jail, testing the entire population as well as staff is crucial to ensuring everyone’s wellbeing.
“Once there’s an outbreak, it’s more serious. There’s less available in quality medical care, so who gets to go to the hospital requires multiple levels of approval,” Wang said. “The jail needs to agree, the health care provider needs to agree and ICE needs to agree. You’re looking at more hurdles for people to get treatment.”
ECCF has reduced its population by about 80 ICE detainees and 72 inmates in the past several weeks and says it is continuing to work with the courts and the Essex County Prosecutors Office and ICE.