BERKELEY, Calif. - A month before the coronavirus outbreak at San Quentin, a group of scientists and health experts offered free COVID-19 testing to inmates and staff, but prison officials said they didn’t need their help.
Genetics Professor Fyodor Urnov helped setup the nonprofit testing lab at the Innovative Genomics Institute at UC Berkeley aimed at testing vulnerable community populations, including those in prisons. But he was turned down by San Quentin – twice.
"It had to have been one of the most frustrating moments of my entire professional life," Urnov said. "I certainly felt like no one was listening."
There have been more than 2,000 inmate infections and at least 14 deaths. Another 244 prison employees have been contracted the virus, too.
California is still relying on clinical lab corporations like Quest Diagnostics to handle testing, but long turnaround times and a backlog of tests make taming the virus difficult.
"If the folks in charge of correctional facilities don’t have a system for vigorous, across the board systematic testing, they have to have one now," Urnov explained. "The virus is out there and it’s an evil and smart little thing."
He originally wrote San Quentin in April hopeful prison officials would want his team’s services. At the time, there were zero cases at the state prison.
"They said, ‘thank you but we’re all set,’" he said. "We were so eager to help. It frustrates me and pains me that we weren’t given the opportunity to."
But it got worse. Just weeks after the Urnov’s group was turned down, 121 inmates from a prison dealing with an outbreak in Chino, were transferred to San Quentin, bringing the virus with them and causing an explosion in cases that began increasing by hundreds.
"I wrote to them again and said very sorry to hear the news. We can do the testing and we can do it quickly," Urnov explained. "Again, the polite reply was, ‘thank you but no thank you.’"
It was around that same time in June that health experts visited the prison and wrote an urgent memo, warning of the prison’s vulnerabilities. Specifically, they mentioned inadequate staffing to conduct mass swabbing and slow testing causing delays or wait times of six days or more for results.
Urnov echoed what doctors had expressed, explaining testing data beyond a couple days does little toward efforts in contact tracing and only heightens the chance more will be infected in congregate settings.
"That’s essentially useless. You need to be able to know in 24 to 36 hours which is what we in this [lab] building are able to do," he said.
While free rapid-testing is available from several public universities, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has opted to sign contracts with companies like Quest Diagnostics. One explanation of leaning on Quest is the company’s computer software is compatible with the state’s software to track the results.
A spokesperson from CDCR did not immediately return requests for comments or information surrounding its testing procedures and contracts. When asked about UC Berkeley’s offer specifically, a spokesperson said he’s "still trying to get to the bottom of the issue."
In a California Senate Public Safety Committee oversight hearing earlier this month, prison officials admitted testing has fallen short affecting more than just San Quentin, but all 35 state prison facilities.
"We didn’t have testing resources to conduct the sort of widespread testing that would let us do surveillance of how many institutions had COVID-19," Clark Kelso, who oversees prison health care services as the Federal Receiver said.
But even now testing frequency is low and results take time. California has revamped its testing priorities but prisons are still only dealing with large corporations to do the tests even among inmates it intends to release.
"We are aggressively trying to seek great contracts to provide greater testing," CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz said in the hearing. "It is difficult to receive and obtain contracts."
Over the last two weeks, data shows the state tested roughly 1,500 inmates at San Quentin. That same amount, Urnov said, could be done at his lab in just two days.
"This is probably one of the worst tragedies that I personally have seen," he said. "If we all don’t learn and work together to prevent something like this from ever happening again then shame on us."