A sudden jump in the number of COVID-19 cases last week at the state prison near Marienville is both alarming and explainable, according to an official with the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association.
John Eckenrode, a vice president with the PSCOA in Harrisburg, said the state Department of Corrections' data spike from 29 active cases reported Jan. 11 to 171 on Wednesday was the result of mass testing of inmates after one of them showed symptoms of the coronavirus during the first week of January.
"On Jan. 1, one union official (at SCI Forest) told me they've been testing wastewater for viral load and it came back there was positivity," Eckenrode said.
"With the combination of one inmate who showed signs (of COVID-19) and the high viral load in the wastewater, they thought it best to test all the other inmates in that (inmate's) housing unit."
The result, according to the DOC, was an increase of nearly 140 cases. And, because prison inmates are considered residents of Forest County, numbers collected from the institution were included in the county's cases data reported daily by the state Department of Health.
An email from DOC press secretary Maria Bivens confirmed Eckenrode's information.
"On Thursday, January 7, 2021, SCI Forest had an inmate who was housed in one of the dorms develop COVID-like symptoms. They administered an antigen test and that test was positive," Bivens said.
"As a result of that active positive inmate, Forest tested all of those 178 inmates (in that unit) using both the antigen and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests and 138 of those tests came back positive."
Prior to those additional tests being administered, Eckenrode acknowledged it is odd that there was no report to prison personnel of other inmates showing symptoms of the virus.
"I wish I could give you a definitive answer," he said.
Bivens said the immediate plan, which was to begin Friday, was to PCR/mass test the entire facility. According to Eckenrode, SCI Forest, as of Dec. 31, has a prison population of 2,295 and about 500 employees.
"They are going to separate the positive cases from the negative cases, identify symptomatic inmates needing a higher level of care, protect the vulnerable inmate population, and move towards a healthy and safe operational schedule," Bivens said.
Eckenrode cautions anyone checking the DOC dashboard, at www.cor.pa.gov, should take into account it is fluid and there is generally a 24-hour lag in the reporting of active cases.
As an example, the dashboard on Wednesday listed 171 active cases among inmates. A report dated Tuesday, which Bivens provided to the newspaper, showed 173 active cases at that time. By Sunday, according to the DOC dashboard, the number was down to 165.
The data on Sunday also included 10 active cases among SCI Forest employees. The Tuesday report from Bivens showed 20 active employee cases.
The report provided by Bivens also showed 201 cumulative inmate positive cases, 27 recoveries, 103 asymptomatic positive cases and one death.
Bivens said SCI Forest has been following all statewide mitigation efforts, which includes "placing inmates in cohorts since March of 2020, issuing masks/PPE to all staff and inmates, strict sanitizing and cleaning schedules, encouraging social-distancing, and washing of hands frequently."