Throughout most of the pandemic, Texas has ranked at, or near, the bottom among states for coronavirus testing. With 290,000 tests and 29.5 million people, Texas has tested fewer than one in 100 of its residents.

The Texas Department of State Health Services on Monday reported 25,297 COVID-19 cases, but the real number is far higher. Up to half of the COVID-19 cases report no symptoms, such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath. Without far more comprehensive testing, Texans will remain clueless about the prevalence of this potentially lethal disease.

Nowhere is the lack of testing more acute, and dangerous, than in the state's immense prison system. It holds 140,000 inmates and employs 35,000 people – almost all of whom live or work in conditions ripe for rapidly spreading the coronavirus throughout the prison and, ultimately, into the community. Close quartered, double-bunked cells are not designed for social distancing or other practices that mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Ramp up testing

Testing in Texas' more than 100 prisons, including five in Anderson County, needs to ramp up quickly. The state aggravated this public health crisis by continuing prisoner transfers weeks longer than it should have. Now that the state has suspended non-medical prisoner transfers, mitigation efforts must focus on expanding testing.

Nearly 18,000 prisoners, including 2,500 in the Beto Unit in Anderson County are on medical restriction because they have had potential contact with the virus. All of those prisoners should have been tested, but the vast majority have not.

Texas needs to get far more aggressive about securing testing resources from the federal government. Gov. Greg Abbott said he expects a massive amount of additional testing capability by May. When allocating these resources, the state should make the Texas prison system a high priority.

By contrast, the voluntary testing of Beto employees over this past weekend typifies the anemic and ineffective efforts of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. COVID-19 tests ought to be mandatory.  Of Beto's 630 employees, 275 were tested Friday and Saturday.  More will be tested later.

Statewide, more than 800 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, including 134 at Beto. With more than 3,000 inmates, Beto, near Tennessee Colony, has reported more COVID-19 cases than any other Texas prison.

Five prisoners at Gurney and 19 at the Michael Unit, both in Anderson County, also have tested positive, as have 15 employees at Beto. Statewide, 294 TDCJ employees have tested positive.

Owing to a lack of tests, the numbers of COVID-19 cases reported in Texas prisons, however, are ridiculously low. Typically, about one in 10 COVID-19 tests, or 10 percent, are positive, but most of TDCJ's 1,300 prisoner tests were positive, suggesting the department is testing only the sickest prisoners with the most obvious symptoms.

Mass testing in Ohio

By mass testing prisoners, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is getting more accurate – if alarming – results. At the Marion County Correctional Institute, for example, 73 percent of all inmates tested positive for COVID-19. “We are getting positive test results on individuals who otherwise would have never been tested because they were asymptomatic,” the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction stated.

In Ohio, at least the state knows the depth of the problem.

Texas prisons, as those in most states, rest largely in rural areas. In Anderson County, local prisons have become the largest catalysts for COVID-19. Prison employees make up 13 of Anderson County's 20 confirmed cases, Judge Robert Johnston said Monday.

In truth, hundreds of people in this county may have the virus, with most cases coming, directly or indirectly, from local prisons. More than 42,000 prisoners , including those at Beto, are on lockdown, living in a cauldron under practically unbearable conditions. The sooner the state corrals this in-prison epidemic, the better.

The lack of hospital beds and space for quarantines and isolation, as well as substandard health care, are problems facing prisons nationwide. Comprehensive testing will help TDCJ allocate scarce resources, limit the spread of COVID-19 to the community, and eliminate some of the guesswork in quarantines and isolation.

Treating a pandemic without comprehensive testing is like taking a trip without a road map, Palestine physician Carolyn Salter told the Herald-Press editorial page. “In any institution without freedom of movement, everyone should be tested,” she said.

To manage the pandemic raging throughout the state, Texas must control the epidemic spreading inside its prison walls. It can do that only by dramatically increasing the testing of state prisoners and employees.

This editorial appeared in the Palestine Herald-Press on April 28.

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