Americans Most Likely to Be Infected: the Faithful, Jailed or Old

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Seventy-one people connected to a church in California fell ill. Twenty-one inmates and guards were sickened at a Georgia prison that holds 730 people. More than 260 residents of New Jersey nursing homes died.

As Americans contend with the Covid-19 pandemic, homes for the elderly and disabled, prisons and places of worship are proving particularly stubborn hotspots. Dozens of nursing homes across 42 states have suffered outbreaks, and 23 states have reported cases in correctional facilities. At least 11 clusters of infection have been tied to houses of worship, including churches in Alabama, Arkansas, California and Illinois.

Lack of testing and equipment shortages are the most visible challenges. But the failure to protect the helpless old and the shunned prisoners — or to brave the taboo of shutting down a Sunday sermon — may prolong the virus’ grip.

“The immediate problem is you’re going to overwhelm medical services,” said Josiah Rich, a doctor who is director and co-founder of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights in Providence, Rhode Island. Longer term, “the infection will continue to smolder and smolder and hamper our efforts to contain a resurgence.”

More than 486,000 Americans have been infected with the new coronavirus and more than 16,000 have died. They have picked up the disease in manifold ways. But the three categories recur throughout the nation.


35,098 in U.S.Most new cases today

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Coronavirus preys on the old. The Life Care Center outside Seattle erupted early in the outbreak when dozens of residents and staff were stricken in February. Eventually, 37 died.

Now that tragedy is being replicated. In New Jersey, more than 13% of the 1,932 people who died through Friday lived in nursing homes, and nearly 70 percent of 375 homes reported positive cases. About 60,000 people live in New Jersey nursing homes, and the state is crafting a plan to evacuate the hardest hit facilities.

Homes are owned by individuals, investors and charities, and vary widely in size and management. The mayor of Elizabeth, New Jersey, called on the state attorney general to investigate a privately owned institution that he said failed to disclose an outbreak that killed at least 12. Owners “did not follow the proper protocol in informing the city or the state that this disease was running rampant,” Mayor Christian Bollwage said Wednesday.

If opacity is one hurdle, testing shortages are another. Massachusetts health officials have started bringing the National Guard into homes to help test residents in places where the virus can burn through the halls.

One of the first locations was Charwell House in Norwood, where four deaths have been linked to Covid-19, said Chris Roberts, vice president of operations. Massachusetts and the town government have been supportive, and staff members are on the phone with the state Department of Health twice a day. Still, Roberts said, more is needed.

“As an industry we need help,” he said. “The focus has been on hospitals, with good reason, but we have been forgotten, especially on the federal level.”


Prisons and jails are ill-suited for social distancing. Overcrowding is rampant and inmates mingle during mealtimes and exercise. Everyone from Attorney General William Barr to the American Civil Liberties Union sees a crisis brewing among the 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S.

In New York, more than 700 prisoners and staff had tested positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday. At the Rikers Island jail complex, where thousands are housed, the infection rate is 5.4%, meaning an inmate is 8 times more likely to get sick than the average New Yorker, according to the Legal Aid Society.

“It is possible that our efforts will stem this growth, but as a physician I must tell you it is unlikely,” Ross MacDonald, the chief doctor at Rikers tweeted. “I cannot reassure you of something you only wish to be true.”

Some cities are simply avoiding jailing people. Chicago and Philadelphia police are minimizing arrests of nonviolent lawbreakers, and lockups have released nonviolent prisoners who are elderly or medically fragile. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Friday said he would order the early release of inmates  older than 60 or seriously ill, or who would have been free in three months or less. Those convicted of murder, sexual assault and other serious crimes are ineligible.

Cook County Jail in Chicago has sent roughly 1,200 people home. Still, more than 350 inmates and guards have tested positive, one of the nation’s worst outbreaks, prompting attorneys for detainees to sue the sheriff to release more.

But even officials trying to release inmates can confront a legal labyrinth.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott prohibited the release of anyone accused of or convicted for a violent crime. Next, Lina Hidalgo, elected head of Houston’s Harris County, ordered nonviolent detainees released. That in turn prompted Harris County’s top felony judge to order the sheriff to disregard her.

“In a matter of a few days, then, the Sheriff faced three conflicting orders from three different officials,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a March 30 filing with a federal judge. “The already slow machinery of jail release ground to a halt. But the health crisis respects no orders. The virus cares not for the turf wars of government.”


A congregant at Young Israel synagogue was the first of scores of people in New Rochelle, New York, to test positive in early March, a harbinger of how places of worship could become loci of infection.

Public officials have shut schools and businesses, but often encouraged religious institutions to close rather than ordering them. At least a dozen states have carved out a religious exemption in stay-home orders.

Texas politicians suggested celebrating Easter in parking lots — with congregants in cars — and offering drive-through communion. The governor of Kentucky announced he would postpone the baptism of his child till after the pandemic.

In Mississippi, which has seen clusters of Covid-19 associated with funerals and large church gatherings, Governor Tate Reeves called a pastor asking him to suspend services at New Hope the Vision Center Missionary Baptist Church. Until then, the preacher had resisted.

“Lives are being lost. Financial abilities are being lost. I just didn’t want to lose my constitutional right,” the Reverend Stanley Searcy Sr. said at a news conference last week.

Other political leaders have had less success.

Solid Rock Church in Lebanon, Ohio, with about 3,500 members, held services in defiance of a health department letter, according to a news report. Pastors in Louisiana and Florida insisted on holding in-person services, with the leader of a Tampa church arrested for violating a ban on large gatherings.

Governments can close places of worship, as long as sects aren’t singled out, said Michael Moreland, a professor of law and religion at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. But many provide useful social services — and arresting worshipers is no political winner.

“Do we want the police going around breaking up gatherings in peoples’ houses or church services?” he said. “From the standpoint of state enforcement, better to have churches voluntarily not have gatherings.”

— With assistance by David Voreacos, Maria Elena Vizcaino, Jonathan Levin, Richard Stubbe, Brian K Sullivan, Shruti Singh, and Jennifer Kay

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