1 institution may have driven millions of COVID-19 infections, study finds

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If the U.S. had reduced its incarceration rate during the pandemic, millions of COVID-19 infections could have been prevented, according to study findings published Sept. 2 in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers with Evanston, Ill.-based Northwestern University and the World Bank analyzed data from 1,605 U.S. counties — 72 percent of the nation's population — from January to November 2020. Findings are based on data from jails that reduced their populations in response to the pandemic.

In total, the U.S. has reported more COVID-19 cases and deaths than any other country, despite having fewer than 5 percent of the global population. The U.S. also has the highest incarceration rate among industrialized countries reporting such data.

U.S. jails currently see an average of 650,000 detainees daily and have a 55 percent weekly turnover rate, Eric Reinhart, MD, PhD, study author with Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told NPR. More than 220,000 full-time jail staff commute to work daily, according to the study.

Five study findings:

1. If the U.S. reduced its jail population by 80 percent, the growth rate for daily COVID-19 cases would likely drop 2 percent — a conservative estimate. 

2. "Even just a 2 percent reduction in daily case growth rates in the U.S. from the beginning of the pandemic until now would translate to the prevention of millions of cases," Dr. Reinhart said.

3. Tens of thousands of COVID-19 deaths could've also been prevented, Dr. Reinhart said.

4. The tie between prisons and public health is one reason Black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately harmed by the virus, the study's authors wrote.  

5. Incarceration levels could be reduced by instituting alternatives to jail for nonviolent offenses, the researchers wrote.

"This jail churn effectively produces epidemic machines that seed outbreaks both in and beyond jails, undermining public safety for the entire country," Dr. Reinhart said.


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