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Despite 'Universal Testing' At Juvenile Detention Centers, Few Have Had COVID-19 Tests

Rachel Baye / WYPR

Gov. Larry Hogan announced on May 20 that the state would do “universal testing” for COVID-19 at juvenile detention facilities. But the vast majority of both the youth residents and the staff at these facilities have yet to be tested, and the state Department of Juvenile Services doesn’t expect to finish the first round of tests until the end of July.


Department of Juvenile Services officials said they have so far tested all of the staff at three of their 13 facilities and the youth at five.  


“We wanted to test our protocols and make sure that they were sufficient,” said DJS Assistant Secretary Betsy Fox Tolentino.  


She said the department started testing the second week of June at two of their smallest facilities before scaling up the operation at larger facilities.


A tentative schedule the department gave WYPR shows that they are testing the youth at each facility first, then the staff. At larger facilities, they test a third of the staff at a time, sometimes days apart.


For example, at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, which is the biggest DJS facility, the department tested all 35 youth residents  last Thursday, then planned to wait five days and test about 40 staff members Tuesday, another 50 on Wednesday, and the last 50 this Friday.


DJS plans to test staff as they come in for their normal shifts, Tolentino said. But they could also delay tests at some facilities, depending on how things go.


“If we were at one facility that did seem to have a bunch of positive tests, we’d want to make sure that we are able to support that facility,” Tolentino said. “We might have to just take a moment, and maybe a day, before we move on to the next facility, because we have to do all our contact tracing, we need to really make sure we're supporting our families by alerting them of any positive tests.”


The union that represents DJS workers, a branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the reason the department is testing a small number of staff at a time is to prevent having so many staff testing positive that they need to quarantine them and bring in more staff to run the facility. They said management mentioned these concerns during a Zoom call early this month.


“They will only test one third of each facility, just to make sure that they are not losing the staffing that they need to run the facility,” said Denise Henderson a DJS transportation officer who was on the call in her capacity as president of the AFSCME local that represents all DJS staff.


Ashley Watson, a case management specialist and shop steward for the union at Cheltenham Youth Detention Center in Southern Prince George’s County, was also on the call and shared Henderson’s recollection.


“They're afraid that they could possibly lose employees if they had a whole bunch of positive cases,” Watson said. “And that's the goal — like we need to know who's positive and get them out of the facilities for the safety of the youth and for the safety of the other staff.”


Contrary to what Tolentino described, Watson said DJS could ask staff to come in on their day off to be tested, rather than wait for their scheduled shift.


However, Tolentino, who said she was not on that Zoom call, said the risk of being short-staffed is not shaping the DJS testing plan.


“We put in a lot of procedures and protocols in place that if we needed to support our staff by bringing in extra people to work in those facilities, that we are able to do that,” Tolentino said.


Watson’s facility, which DJS officials said has 28 children and 130 DJS employees, is last on the testing schedule. The staff are slated to be tested the last three days of July.


Watson said the wait to get tested makes her nervous. Many of the employees live near the facility, in Prince George’s County, which has had the most COVID-19 cases in the state. She said she worries about bringing an infection home to her two children, who both have heart conditions, and her 83-year-old mother, who lives with her.


Watson said she does everything in her power to keep from bringing the infection into her home. She sprays Lysol in her car at the end of every day and takes her clothes off immediately when she gets home from work.


“I just try to stay as clean as possible, keep extra hand sanitizer, washing my hands more frequently, you know, just doing the regular stuff to try to minimize the spread,” Watson said.


When DJS finishes testing everyone at the end of July, it will continue to test youth or staff who show COVID-19 symptoms, but there are no current plans to begin a second round of universal testing, unless they get new guidance from the state Department of Health, Tolentino said.


Not continuing to test both residents and staff is a mistake, according to Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.


“For this to be effective, we would have to continuously test because, you know, you could test everybody today and they'd be negative, but everybody tomorrow could be positive,” Nuzzo said. “In order for this to have any kind of impact, you would need to do this with some frequency.”


In congregate care facilities like juvenile detention centers, where it’s nearly impossible for the residents to practice social distancing, she said routine testing is key to preventing future outbreaks. 


For example, nursing homes in New York are required to test residents twice a week. That’s still less than ideal, Nuzzo said, but reasonable with limited testing resources.


“You want to do regular testing to find people who may be carrying the infection into these facilities,” she said. “Because of the intense level of exposure that occurs in these facilities where you have lots of people who are living in very close contact with each other under one roof, if the virus gets in, chances are it can spread really quickly, and you can have an explosive outbreak.”


Testing just the people who have symptoms isn’t enough, she said, because people don’t have to show symptoms to be contagious.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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