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Prison health experts are worried about monkeypox


Monkeypox has arrived in the Cook County Jail in Illinois. It confirmed its first case of an inmate with the disease this week. And some public health experts worry the virus could spread quickly in jails and prisons throughout the country, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: People who work in corrections health care are having some deja vu right now. Anne Spaulding is a physician researcher at Emory University.

ANNE SPAULDING: I feel like we've just been through, in some respects, a field exercise, that people are aware because of COVID that outbreaks can occur in jails and prisons.

KASTE: But she says the pandemic experience does not mean that jails are necessarily ready for what's coming now. Homer Venters is the former chief medical officer for New York City jails. Now he inspects conditions at correctional facilities around the country. And he says the fact that monkeypox is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact makes him especially worried about the intake pins at jails.

HOMER VENTERS: Those places are often filthy, rarely cleaned, and people are packed together very tightly, shoulder to shoulder - skin contact for hours, sometimes for days.

KASTE: Another thing he worries about is copays. Many jails and prisons charge inmates nominal fees to get medical services. He says that makes some inmates reluctant to get symptoms checked out - say, a rash.

VENTERS: I strongly encourage elimination or copays, period, but especially in times like this where we want to know when people are sick.

KASTE: Some jails took that advice as COVID loomed. One of them was the South Correctional Entity, or SCORE, south of Seattle. Devon Schrum is the executive director.

DEVON SCHRUM: I just - I'm not sure that that would have occurred to us. Medical co-pays were a pretty standard form of practice in jails and the community. But because of COVID, we looked at all of the barriers that might keep somebody from reporting symptoms.

KASTE: Schrum says they got rid of copays permanently, and that'll now help with monkeypox. She also points to other measures that were taken because of COVID, such as more wipe-downs of surfaces and health screenings of inmates that are coming in. Despite the deja vu, Schrum does not expect that monkeypox will be another COVID situation.

SCHRUM: It's not the same, thankfully. And COVID taught us a lot of really important lessons, including just inmate education and making sure that they have access to information.

KASTE: But that information is still evolving. The CDC is taking notes as cases are detected, and corrections health experts expect that they'll understand the nature of this threat a lot better as it spreads. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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