Harrisburg, PA – Following Oct. 27 and 28, COVID-19 antigen testing of 844 inmates and 82 employees at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Laurel Highlands (Somerset County), results show 25 inmates (or less than three percent of the population) were positive, and two of 58 employees who volunteered for testing were positive.
"We conducted this testing because waste water testing results showed an increase in the viral load at the prison," Secretary John Wetzel said. "SCI Laurel Highlands -- based on the fact that it houses medically vulnerable inmates and provides housing and services to inmates who also require personal and long-term care -- is of great concern to us. We must be proactive and aggressive to manage this virus, and we believe that mass testing at this prison is the best way to get an accurate picture of how many inmates may have the virus. Testing of this inmate population will be ongoing, and updated figures can be obtained on our website's COVID-19 dashboard."
Wetzel commended the PA Department of Health for providing the new antigen tests, which allow the DOC to be proactive and mass test inmates for the first time. The antigen test looks for the virus' protein coat.
Testing results were provided to the DOC's Bureau of Health Care Services staff, who then used the data to calculate the prevalence of the virus. Immediately upon receiving the test results, facility staff separated inmates based upon negative and positive results for the virus.
Wetzel said that positive results may provide advanced warning of asymptomatic individuals as they shed the virus prior to demonstrating any symptoms.
"This is the first mass testing we have done," Wetzel said. "We waited until we believed we had more accurate tests available to us."
Wetzel said that the antigen test is tilted toward false positive results, versus other tests that tilted toward false negative results.
Wetzel also confirmed that sewage testing is what led to the decision to conduct antigen testing.
Waste water samples are drawn periodically over a 24-hour period, with a total of five liters being collected. The sample is then shipped overnight to a Pennsylvania lab, which usually returns results within 72 hours.
The DOC began testing prison waste water for the presence of SARS COVID 2 virus on Aug. 4, at SCIs Benner Township, Huntingdon and Rockview. Initially the DOC only had three testing units, which were moved between state prisons as needed. The agency now has 20 units in operation, with four state prisons expected to receive their units this week.
Wetzel said that sampling collected at SCI Laurel Highlands on Oct. 15, did not detect the virus. However, only five days later showed a low viral load.
"While results show a low viral load, this slight increase over five days was concerning and required immediate proactive testing to determine the prevalence of the virus at the prison which houses a number of medically compromised and vulnerable individuals," Wetzel said.
Wetzel said that he expects to continue waste water sampling throughout the pandemic so prison officials can work to stay ahead of potential outbreaks.
SCI Laurel Highlands opened in July 1996. Previously the Somerset State Hospital, the prison houses adult male inmates and serves inmates with special needs – namely, long-term care, personal care, wheelchair, dialysis and geriatric inmates, as well as general population inmates. As of Sept. 30, the facility housed 883 inmates.
Visit the DOC's website to stay up to date with DOC COVID-19 information and statistics.