Here’s the surprising way Michigan is tracking COVID-19 cases in prisons

DOC will soon have its own system, map

By: - April 4, 2020 12:30 pm

Alex Potemkin, Getty Images

Those who have been regularly tuning in to Michigan’s daily statewide tally of COVID-19 cases and deaths know the drill by now: Around 3 p.m. every day, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) takes data from each county’s health department, adds it to a spreadsheet and publishes that county list on a web page for all to see.

But the data coming in from the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) is different.

DOC facilities exist in virtually all corners of the state, including the Upper Peninsula — and it’s up to the DOC to obtain the health data from each of those 30 locations and report it all to the state every day. It’s a whole new subset of data gathering that leads to challenges in keeping things up to date at the same time each day.

The state also made the decision to add DOC as a separate jurisdiction under its own “other” category — rather than, for example, adding one case of COVID-19 at the Newberry Correctional Facility into Luce County’s overall total. Cases at state prisons are also not included on the state’s new interactive map showing cases by county. 

COVID-19 cases in prisons, April 4, 2020 | DOC

For these reasons, DOC instead keeps its own, separate tally; not on its state server, but on the popular writing platform Medium. DOC has been updating the Medium post every evening at 5:30, which the state then uses for the next day’s tally as of 10 a.m.

It’s unconventional, but DOC spokesperson Chris Gautz said it’s simply faster that way.

“We do that because the state server, sometimes it can take hours to push new information onto it. And so, using the Medium page … we can update it within seconds, whereas if we had new information right now, it might not clear the servers until like 6:00 or 9:00 or 10:00 tonight,” Gautz said.

“This is our way of just being much more transparent. As soon as we get numbers, we can post them and not have to wait for whatever time delay the state system is on. … It’s just easier for us to just try to do it on our own and just push it when we need to,” he added.

Gautz said that DOC will soon adopt the software that California uses to track cases at prisons. The software, Microsoft Power BI, will show locations with a heat map, numbers of positive and negative tests, numbers of those who have recovered and a graph showing testing and positive cases by the day.

“We’re trying to get that online now. It’s just a matter of just trying to … learn the software and get the spreadsheet built on the back end that will power it, and then also make sure that it works with our software and with [the state website],” Gautz said.

It’s a challenge for the staff to learn a whole new software in the midst of remotely fielding media calls, responding to inquiries and providing public updates, but Gautz said that he hopes it will be up this weekend at the earliest.

As of Saturday, there are nine DOC locations with confirmed positive cases of the virus. Two of those are in the U.P., in Luce and Chippewa counties.

Jackson’s Parnall Correctional Facility has the most, with 90 reported cases. The Macomb Correctional Facility is not far behind, with 46 cases — followed by 25 at Branch County’s Lakeland Correctional Facility, 24 at Washtenaw County’s Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility and 11 at the Detroit Reentry Center.

The decision to not integrate these numbers into the rest of the state’s county numbers and instead make a separate “other” category for all DOC cases was made by the DHHS, not DOC, Gautz said.

He posited that it could have been to put less strain on smaller county health departments, especially in the beginning when the first case in a county would attract a flood of calls to that health department — even if there was no community spread because it was an inmate who had tested positive.

“That’s not our call. That’s their data,” Gautz said.

DHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said that this was simply done for consistency with the state’s previous reporting methodology for other disease outbreaks, including for Hepatitis A.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.