There have been more than 40,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in prisons and jails across 47 states. Only Idaho and Wyoming, as well as Hawaii, have yet to see a confirmed case within the inmate population in state correctional facilities, according to the nonprofit journalist outlet the Marshall Project.
Wyoming has tested 32 inmates, and Idaho has conducted 62 tests, all of which came back negative.
But that's not a lot of testing, says Lauren Brinkley-Rubenstein, an expert on incarceration and health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"If you're not engaging in very much testing, then you're probably not finding very many cases," Brinkley-Rubenstein says. "Your case numbers are artificial because if you don't test people you can't understand what's happening in your facility."
Some prisons are instituting universal testing for inmates and staff, but Idaho and Wyoming aren't there yet. Idaho says it's testing every inmate that shows any symptoms. It also says it's conducting strict medical screenings of staff entering facilities, and disinfecting all surfaces multiple times a day.
"You are, in essence, holding your breath and hoping that that today isn't the day that that status of ‘no cases’ changes," says Josh Tewalt, director of the Idaho Department of Correction. "And every day that it's not, it buys us time to continue to prepare and and look at additional preventative measures we can take to better position our agency to respond."
Tewalt says every inmate and staff member have been provided with at least three cloth face masks, but mask wearing is not mandatory for the entire population or staff.
Eighty corrections staff members have been tested in Idaho, with five tests coming back positive for COVID-19. Tewalt believes those cases were caught before the virus could spread.
"The threat is from the outside in," Tewalt says. "We were pretty quick to implement protocols that dictated movement within our systems," including quarantining for two weeks inmates transferring into a facility.
In Wyoming, corrections staff are wearing sneeze guards in addition to cloth masks, according to the Wyoming Department of Corrections.
"WDOC staff remain diligent in their effort to ensure proper sanitization, social distancing and PPE recommendations are being adhered to in all WDOC facilities," says Mark Horan, a spokesperson for the department.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.