Wheeler Ranked #1 in Nation for COVID
Wheeler County garnered national attention last week as The New York Times listed the predominately rural county as the number one spot in the nation for a rapid spike of COVID- 19. Now, it appears the notoriety was unwarranted.
A ‘‘data dump’’ of prison COVID-19 cases appears to have rocketed Wheeler County into the top position nationally on The Times’ hot spot list for the disease with 155 cases in the past seven days, Georgia Health News reported September 16. Wheeler County is home to a large, privately-owned prison operated by Core Civic. A map on the state Department of Public Health (DPH) website shows Wheeler as a dark red county, indicating a continued from page
very high number of recent transmissions. The site said that 165 cases had been reported during the last two weeks, more than half of Wheeler’s total number of cases. On Monday, September 21, the South Central Health District reported that Wheeler has had 303 cases of COVID since March, with 13 deaths and 19 hospitalizations (de-duplicated figures).
On September 19, the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) website reported 170 COVID cases Wheeler
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and 8 deaths at the Wheeler prison since March. Of the total number of inmates who have contracted COVID, 150 have recovered. There were no reports of staff cases. The Wheeler facility has the highest total number of prison COVID cases in Georgia next to Coffee County Correctional Facility in Nicholls, which as of September 19, had 205 offender cases with 199 offender recoveries and 4 offender deaths since March.
State public health offi cials said that they became aware of unreported COVID- 19 cases at the Wheeler Correctional Facility last week.
CoreCivic had been reporting the cases occurring at its 2,000-plus bed, men’s facility to DOC but, apparently, this information was not transferred to DPH, which tracks the virus spread in the state. While some of the prison cases in question dated back several months, most occurred in August. DPH added those cases to its COVID counts on September 10 and 11, according to GHN.
“DPH reports positive COVID-19 cases when we receive test results, so while the cases did not occur in September, they were reported in September on those two days, which is why there was a large increase in case numbers in Wheeler County,’’ Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for GPH, told GHN.
DPH said it has spoken with officials with CoreCivic and Wheeler Correctional Facility to ensure that positive cases are reported directly to the agency going forward. A spokesman for CoreCivic acknowledged the breakdown in reporting results, GHN reported.
“That issue has been addressed, which resulted in the increase of reported cases in Wheeler County on September 10 and 11,’’ said Ryan Gustin, the spokesman. He said the Wheeler prison thus far “has only reported three positive COVID-19 cases among our inmate population in the month of September.’’
Melissa Brantley, public information officer for the South Central Health District based in Dublin, explained that inmates in the prison system who test positive for COVID are counted in that county’s population, rather than in their home county. “That number will be reflected on the Wheeler County totals. The prison was reporting the positives but it appears DPH was not picking it up and then all of the data was sent at one time. That is what brought the numbers up so much in a short amount of time.” She added, “Hopefully, that issue is corrected and from here on out the numbers will be reported as they come in so it doesn’t cause that kind of spike. It was all entered into the system at the same time. That is why it caused that kind of alert.”
In commenting on whether the high number of COVID-19 cases at the prison indicates a hot spot, Brantley said, “It depends on how you look at the numbers. Where are the cases? When we look for hot spots in an area, we look at community spread. Certainly, it is a concern when we have outbreaks anywhere, but these cases are mostly confined to one area, which is in the prison system, so it is not necessarily a community spread.”
Brantley, who has been fielding calls from the media in the last week because of the NY Times report, could not comment on the transfer protocol that caused the data dump. “It was just a data glitch with the system and hopefully this data will be entered in a timely manner from here on out.”
GHN reported that another data dump that skewed the state’s numbers occurred in August in Central Georgia. That’s when thousands of COVID-19 test results were dumped into the state system from a third-party vendor for Macon-based Navicent Health. Many of the test results were negative and many were duplicates of tests previously counted.