State Treasurer Dale R. Folwell, CPA, and State Health Plan (Plan) Director Dee Jones announced Wednesday, April 22, 2020, that they have secured more than 20,000 COVID-19 tests at Mako Medical in Raleigh. The FDA-approved tests will be used to test more than 16,000 corrections officers and other employees at the state’s 56 correctional institutions over the next few weeks.
The largest concentrations of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina have occurred in the state’s prisons. Johnston Correctional Institution has been closed since last week with inmates transferred to other facilities and corrections personnel shifted to Neuse Correctional Facility (NCF). NCF has reported 458 virus cases among the 767 inmates in just the last three weeks, representing over half of the people incarcerated at that facility. Tensions are high among North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS)) employees and inmates at the Goldsboro facility and the other 54 facilities like it across North Carolina.
Health care experts point out that prisons are breeding grounds for viruses including COVID-19. Additionally, many prisons are located in rural areas, increasing the potential to spread the virus to less densely populated areas of the state not yet so hard hit by the pandemic.
While all employees and inmates at the NCF are being tested, there have been no plans for wider testing for the remaining 13,000-plus DPS employees across the state.
“When faced with anxiety and uncertainty in life, there’s only one way out – to give more. These officers are doing that and now it’s our time,” said Treasurer Folwell. “Over the last three years as State Treasurer, the last thing I wanted is for these officers to worry about their pension and health care; now we want to remove their anxiety and stress of not knowing whether they are COVID-19 positive.”
While details are being finalized, the Plan intends to leverage its State Health Plan Network of more than 25,000 providers that signed onto the Clear Pricing Project last year. Charlotte-based Tryon Medical Partners, ECU Physicians, and others will partner with us for this project, which has a big goal, with a short deadline. They will take the lead in testing of DPS personnel at the state’s other 54 facilities beginning with 17 that have at least one person testing positive. Many DPS employees, including people working at correctional facilities, have medical coverage provided by the Plan. By a recent vote of the SHP Board of Trustees, all costs associated with testing will be covered by the Plan.
The State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) is working with DPS to coordinate testing while minimizing interference with normal operations at prisons. Qualified medical staff in these facilities already do initial health assessments on employees and administer medication to inmates. While the Plan will provide the tests, it wants to work with those personnel and others to administer the tests.
“The outbreak at Neuse Correctional puts the dangers correctional employees face in true perspective,” said Ardis Watkins, Executive Director of SEANC. “SEANC reached out to Treasurer Folwell and the State Health Plan staff for a solution, and they were able to move mountains to make this happen. We appreciate their diligence and hope this testing will give these state employees peace of mind.”
In addition, the organization is working with the Plan to consider conducting wider testing of state employees over the next few weeks to get a better idea of the extent of the virus within that population. Further information regarding who may already have antibodies for the disease will give public health officials additional empirical data with which to determine the nature and timing of reopening the state’s economy.
“There have been points and times in history where people looked back and said, ‘why didn’t somebody do something?’” added Treasurer Folwell. “We can’t let the perfect get in the way of the possible. We don’t intend to look back and say, ‘why didn’t we do something when we could.’”
While the Plan, SEANC and their partners are still developing their strategies, additional information about the program will be provided at SHP.org as soon as it is available. All logistics and data will be collected in concert with Dr. Mandy K. Cohen, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, Erik A. Hooks, Secretary of DPS and Timothy Moose, Chief Deputy Secretary of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice.
The State Health Plan, a division of the Department of State Treasurer, provides health care coverage to more than 727,000 teachers, state employees, retirees, current and former lawmakers, state university and community college personnel, and their dependents.