The medical director for the V.I. Bureau of Corrections insisted as late as June 1 that wearing face masks “would not lessen nor eliminate the possibility of transmission of COVID-19” and social distancing “has not been proven to be effective” in slowing the spread of the deadly virus, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court.
The statements by Dr. Linda Callwood came two months after the Centers for Disease Control recommended that Americans wear cloth face coverings to prevent transmission of the virus, and two months before a COVID-19 outbreak infected a total of 47 people at the St. Thomas jail.
Callwood’s comments “contradict abundant research regarding the centrality of wearing masks and practicing social distancing in preventing the transmission of COVID-19,” according to a court motion by attorney Eric Balaban of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU has asked District Court Judge Robert Molloy to find the Virgin Islands government in violation of a 2013 consent decree mandating that prisoners be held in humane conditions of confinement — and to assess monetary fines until the government complies with its settlement agreement.
Callwood made the statements in a press release touting the Bureau’s success in preventing COVID-19 infections at the St. Thomas jail and St. Croix prison, after Balaban questioned the effectiveness of the Bureau’s COVID-19 protocols in publicly available court filings in May.
Balaban wrote that prisoners reported being forced to interact in large clusters of as many as 19 people, common areas were only being cleaned once a day “at most,” and staff ignored prisoners who were “exhibiting flu-like symptoms” rather than following public health guidance that they be isolated, provided with a face mask, and tested for COVID-19.
Callwood even dismissed the effectiveness of social distancing, saying that it “has not been proven to be effective in the prevention of aerosolized infectious processes. It has been documented that any virus, once airborne, can travel distances beyond 6 feet until it meets a surface.”
In addition, “BOC will vigorously challenge the ACLU’s filing at the appropriate time with the first-hand accounts from medical and correctional professionals who have been working diligently in the Virgin Islands at BOC facilities since the pandemic began. Here, the ‘proof is in the pudding:’ the effectiveness of BOC’s COVID-19 response can be measured by the absence of COVID-19 infection at any of its facilities,” Bureau spokesman Winthrop Maduro wrote in the press release. “BOC is rightfully proud of this accomplishment, achieved through careful planning and foresight, not by blind luck.” Only weeks later, Maduro announced that several inmates had fallen ill with the virus.
An initial round of testing first detected the outbreak on Aug. 9, and a total of 36 prisoners and 11 staff eventually tested positive. At the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, Maduro said the jail was housing 74 inmates/detainees, and has 47 staff members, meaning that nearly a quarter of all detainees at the facility were infected before the virus was brought under control. Maduro said all affected recovered without hospitalization. “Defendants attributed the initial outbreak at the Jail to correctional staff infecting prisoners. Two weeks after the initial outbreak, the Department of Health concluded that the Jail still had ‘an unacceptable number of positive COVID-19 cases,” Balaban wrote in his most recent motion to enforce the consent decree, filed Nov. 9.
The V.I. Health Department ordered the jail to remain in quarantine until testing showed no new infections for two weeks.
“That order remained in place for six weeks,” Balaban wrote. “If it is the case that staff infected prisoners, that may reflect inadequate policies, inadequate staff training, or inadequate staff adherence to those polices.”
Prior to the outbreak, Bureau staff declined to provide their COVID-19 protocols to the ACLU.