SCI Huntingdon COVID-19 Cases
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During his testimony to state senators, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said he believes SCI Huntingdon is on the downside of its recent Coronavirus outbreak.

He said the DOC is doing everything it can to stop the spread, but the older facilities are creating problems.

"This notion of social distance and corrections, our facilities weren�t designed for this," Wetzel said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is reporting 145 cases among inmates and 54 among staff at SCI Huntingdon as of Monday. This week the department reported two deaths.

Despite the facility being under quarantine since March, Wetzel said compared to newer facilities SCI Huntingdon is at a disadvantage when fighting the spread of the Coronavirus.

"Huntingdon had these big housing units, 500-person housing units," Wetzel said. "What we saw is by the time we discovered that the disease was in there it had spread."

Wetzel said mitigation efforts are in place. in person visitation is postponed, anyone entering the facilities must undergo a screening and contact tracing is underway.

The facilities gym is now an infirmary where inmates can receive medical care. Wetzel said the DOC has been working with local hospitals to arrange transports for patients, while trying not to overwhelm medical centers.

The DOC said thirteen COVID-19 positive SCI Huntingdon inmates were transported to a local hospital, nine tested positive before being transported.

"Many of our facilities are in rural areas. We don't want them to become a real threat to the community health care infrastructure," Wetzel said. "We lived through that in Huntingdon."

Wetzel said the DOC is conducting tests within facilities. any inmates transferring facilities must test negative before they leave and undergo a two-week quarantine upon arrival at their new location. Wetzel said any first responders in Pennsylvania can get tested upon request, including correctional officers.

The DOC brought in correctional officers from other facilities to help staff SCI Huntingdon. Wetzel said those officers volunteered.

"We opened a female transition unit on the grounds of SCI Graterford to provide population relief to Huntingdon in the midst of an outbreak at Huntingdon. Again, hundreds of volunteers put themselves in danger's way."

Some SCI Huntingdon inmates who test negative are in the process of being transferred to a separate facility to help reduce the spread.

Wetzel said the DOC recently released 151 inmates serving time for nonviolent crimes from state correctional institutions.

Including scheduled releases, 83 SCI Huntingdon inmates have been released since March 30.

Wetzel said the goal is to create more space in the facilities to allow for social distancing. When questioned by one state senator who received concerns from residents, Wetzel maintained the release is in the community's best interest.

"We have 193 staff who tested positive for this disease and they live in the communities that you�re talking about, he said. "I do think the community has a compelling interest in us being able to reduce our population responsibly for us to be able to manage this disease."

Wetzel said he sees the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the outbreak, but the new methods of operation within facilities will not go away any time soon.

He said masks are here to stay and he believes population reduction is a key to preventing exposure.