WEDNESDAY, June 30, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. counties with state prisons had higher COVID-19 rates in the pandemic's first wave than those without prisons, a new study finds.
Researchers analyzed data through July 1, 2020, adjusting for county-specific factors that might have affected the spread of COVID, such as the presence of nursing homes and population density.
The upshot: Having a state prison was associated with 11% more COVID cases during the study period.
County-level figures on the number of cases within prisons weren't available, making it difficult to track disease spread inside and outside prisons, the University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers noted.
But based on national data, they estimated that about 70% of prison-associated cases were likely in the surrounding community, according to findings published June 29 in the American Journal of Public Health.
"If we're creating holistic public health policies, prisons are an important factor," co-author Kaitlyn Sims, a doctoral student in agricultural and applied economics, said in a university news release.
Researchers calculated that 95,000 COVID cases and more than 3,300 deaths nationwide -- the majority of prison-associated cases -- were due to spillover from prisons into surrounding communities.
The study results implied that diseases can enter prisons from outside, incubate and escalate inside, and then spread to surrounding communities. In April 2020, U.S. federal prisons began restricting movement between and inside prisons, which researchers said might have reduced the spread of COVID.
Counties with prisons should prepare for future outbreaks by prioritizing the health of both inmates and residents of nearby towns, researchers advised.
"Your community is safer if your prison population is healthy," said co-author Jeremy Foltz, a professor of agricultural and applied economics.
"Given the unique challenges that prisons face, it's important that we pay attention to them and recognize that they need equally unique policies," she said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID-19.
SOURCE: University of Wisconsin-Madison, news release, June 29, 2021