May 05, 2021

Van Hollen, Warren, Colleagues Urge HHS to Take "Immediate" and "Aggressive" Action to Mitigate and Manage COVID-19 Outbreaks in Correctional Facilities

United States Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), along with Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), wrote to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) urging Secretary Xavier Becerra to use new funding authorized by Congress in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and his authority under the Public Health Service Act to take immediate and aggressive action to help manage COVID-19 outbreaks in federal, state, and local correctional facilities. The senators specifically ask HHS to provide weekly testing to incarcerated people and correctional staff; expand vaccine access for incarcerated people and staff; require federal, state, and local correctional facilities to collect and publicize detailed demographic data on COVID-19 testing and vaccinations; and provide additional support, such as paid leave for correctional staff and transitional services for incarcerated individuals leaving facilities, to help combat the spread of COVID-19. 

"Although the U.S. is now making considerable progress in rolling out COVID-19 vaccinations, the virus continues to spread in communities throughout the country. Some of the individuals who continue to be at the greatest risk from the virus are individuals in correctional facilities--both incarcerated people and correctional staff," the senators wrote

Mitigation remains an enormous challenge in correctional settings: incarcerated individuals are infected at a rate over five times greater than the average rate of the non-incarcerated population, and die at three times that average rate. As of today, the virus has already claimed the lives of 2,575 incarcerated people in the U.S., according to the Marshall Project.  

Last month, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which provided $1.9 trillion to help communities around the country manage the public health crisis and recover from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic -- including $47.8 billion "to carry out activities to detect, diagnose, trace, and monitor SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 infections and related strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19." It further directed the Secretary of HHS to "implement a national, evidence-based strategy for testing, contact tracing, surveillance, and mitigation with respect to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, including through activities authorized under Section 319(a) of the Public Health Service Act." In addition to the specific authority in the American Rescue Plan, the Public Health Service Act provides the Secretary of HHS with the authority to manage public health emergencies, including broad discretion to allocate resources as he or she sees fit to combat those emergencies.

"These Public Health Service Act authorities provide you with powerful tools to combat public health emergencies, as well as the broad authority to determine what is needed to respond to them, and Congress has now provided you with $47.8 billion to take aggressive measures to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe it is critically important that you use the new funding authorized under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to execute the President's goal to protect incarcerated people and correctional facility workers from COVID-19," the senators wrote.