Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Prison systems halt visits as precaution against flu

By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

Some of the nation's largest prison systems have ended visitation and quarantined at-risk inmates to block the spread of swine flu, state and federal officials said Monday.

California operates the largest state system, which holds about 170,000 inmates. It canceled all visitation and barred all non-essential personnel from the facilities after prison officials diagnosed the first "probable" case of the H1N1 virus Sunday.

Steven Ritter, acting chief of California Prison Health Care Services, described the case as "mild" and said the infected inmate and his cellmate are receiving treatment.
California state prison spokeswoman Terry Thornton said Monday that visitation would be closed "until further notice."

"The department takes the threat of a swine flu influenza outbreak very seriously and is taking all precautions to limit possibilities of exposure," said Scott Kernan, the system's undersecretary of operations.

Texas manages the nation's second-largest state system, holding 154,000 offenders. Authorities canceled visitation at all 112 facilities over the weekend and will consider closing to visitors next weekend.

Although there were no confirmed cases, Texas spokesman Jason Clark said 29 inmates are being quarantined for at least a week because they exhibit symptoms of the virus.

Clark said all new arrivals are being isolated for 72 hours.

The federal Bureau of Prisons, which manages 203,000 offenders, has launched the first of a four-part response plan that involves screening all new prisoners for symptoms. Spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said some facilities have canceled visitation but declined to say which ones.

Billingsley said there were no confirmed cases of the flu in the federal system.

Limiting visitation "remains a local decision," the bureau said in a statement. "Institutions have been informed that they should post notices to visitors" about the flu and "restrict visits as necessary based on a survey of visitors to determine presence of symptoms or risk factors."

There were no confirmed cases in Florida, the third-largest state system, which has about 100,000 inmates. Spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said prison officials met Monday to discuss possible containment plans.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman Llelwyn Grant said Monday that it was unclear how many, if any, of the 279 confirmed cases of the virus involve prisoners.

He said that information is generally tracked by the states. Grant said the CDC advises corrections officials to isolate and monitor people with flulike symptoms at their facilities for at least seven days.

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