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This interim guidance is based on what is currently known about the transmission and severity of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) as of the date of posting, March 23, 2020.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will update this guidance as needed and as additional information becomes available. Please check the CDC website periodically for updated interim guidance.

This document provides interim guidance specific for correctional facilities and detention centers during the outbreak of COVID-19, to ensure continuation of essential public services and protection of the health and safety of incarcerated and detained persons, staff, and visitors. Recommendations may need to be revised as more information becomes available.

Who is the intended audience for this guidance?

This document is intended to provide guiding principles for healthcare and non-healthcare administrators of correctional and detention facilities (including but not limited to federal and state prisons, local jails, and detention centers), law enforcement agencies that have custodial authority for detained populations (i.e., US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US Marshals Service), and their respective health departments, to assist in preparing for potential introduction, spread, and mitigation of COVID-19 in their facilities. In general, the document uses terminology referring to correctional environments but can also be applied to civil and pre-trial detention settings.

This guidance will not necessarily address every possible custodial setting and may not use legal terminology specific to individual agencies’ authorities or processes. The guidance may need to be adapted based on individual facilities’ physical space, staffing, population, operations, and other resources and conditions. Facilities should contact CDC or their state, local, territorial, and/or tribal public health department if they need assistance in applying these principles or addressing topics that are not specifically covered in this guidance.

Why is this guidance being issued?

Correctional and detention facilities can include custody, housing, education, recreation, healthcare, food service, and workplace components in a single physical setting. The integration of these components presents unique challenges for control of COVID-19 transmission among incarcerated/detained persons, staff, and visitors. Consistent application of specific preparation, prevention, and management measures can help reduce the risk of transmission and severe disease from COVID-19.

CDC has issued separate COVID-19 guidance addressing healthcare infection control and clinical care of COVID-19 cases as well as close contacts of cases in community-based settings. Where relevant, community-focused guidance documents are referenced in this document and should be monitored regularly for updates, but they may require adaptation for correctional and detention settings.

This guidance document provides additional recommended best practices specifically for correctional and detention facilities. At this time, different facility types (e.g., prison vs. jail) and sizes are not differentiated. Administrators and agencies should adapt these guiding principles to the specific needs of their facility.

What topics does this guidance include?

The guidance below includes detailed recommendations on the following topics related to COVID-19 in correctional and detention settings:

  • Operational and communications preparations for COVID-19
  • Enhanced cleaning/disinfecting and hygiene practices
  • Social distancing strategies to increase space between individuals in the facility
  • How to limit transmission from visitors
  • Infection control, including recommended personal protective equipment (PPE) and potential alternatives during PPE shortages
  • Verbal screening and temperature check protocols for incoming incarcerated/detained individuals, staff, and visitors
  • Medical isolation of confirmed and suspected cases and quarantine of contacts, including considerations for cohorting when individual spaces are limited
  • Healthcare evaluation for suspected cases, including testing for COVID-19
  • Clinical care for confirmed and suspected cases
  • Considerations for persons at higher risk of severe disease from COVID-19

Definitions of Commonly Used Terms

Close contact of a COVID-19 case – In the context of COVID-19, an individual is considered a close contact if they a) have been within approximately 6 feet of a COVID-19 case for a prolonged period of time or b) have had direct contact with infectious secretions from a COVID-19 case (e.g., have been coughed on). Close contact can occur while caring for, living with, visiting, or sharing a common space with a COVID-19 case. Data to inform the definition of close contact are limited. Considerations when assessing close contact include the duration of exposure (e.g., longer exposure time likely increases exposure risk) and the clinical symptoms of the person with COVID-19 (e.g., coughing likely increases exposure risk, as does exposure to a severely ill patient).

Cohorting – Cohorting refers to the practice of isolating multiple laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases together as a group, or quarantining close contacts of a particular case together as a group. Ideally, cases should be isolated individually, and close contacts should be quarantined individually. However, some correctional facilities and detention centers do not have enough individual cells to do so and must consider cohorting as an alternative. See Quarantine and Medical Isolation sections below for specific details about ways to implement cohorting to minimize the risk of disease spread and adverse health outcomes.

Community transmission of COVID-19 – Community transmission of COVID-19 occurs when individuals acquire the disease through contact with someone in their local community, rather than through travel to an affected location. Once community transmission is identified in a particular area, correctional facilities and detention centers are more likely to start seeing cases inside their walls. Facilities should consult with local public health departments if assistance is needed in determining how to define “local community” in the context of COVID-19 spread. However, because all states have reported cases, all facilities should be vigilant for introduction into their populations.

Confirmed vs. Suspected COVID-19 case – A confirmed case has received a positive result from a COVID-19 laboratory test, with or without symptoms. A suspected case shows symptoms of COVID-19 but either has not been tested or is awaiting test results. If test results are positive, a suspected case becomes a confirmed case.

Incarcerated/detained persons – For the purpose of this document, “incarcerated/detained persons” refers to persons held in a prison, jail, detention center, or other custodial setting where these guidelines are generally applicable. The term includes those who have been sentenced (i.e., in prisons) as well as those held for pre-trial (i.e., jails) or civil purposes (i.e, detention centers). Although this guidance does not specifically reference individuals in every type of custodial setting (e.g., juvenile facilities, community confinement facilities), facility administrators can adapt this guidance to apply to their specific circumstances as needed.

Medical Isolation – Medical isolation refers to confining a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case (ideally to a single cell with solid walls and a solid door that closes), to prevent contact with others and to reduce the risk of transmission. Medical isolation ends when the individual meets pre-established clinical and/or testing criteria for release from isolation, in consultation with clinical providers and public health officials (detailed in guidance below). In this context, isolation does NOT refer to punitive isolation for behavioral infractions within the custodial setting. Staff are encouraged to use the term “medical isolation” to avoid confusion.

Quarantine – Quarantine refers to the practice of confining individuals who have had close contact with a COVID-19 case to determine whether they develop symptoms of the disease. Quarantine for COVID-19 should last for a period of 14 days. Ideally, each quarantined individual would be quarantined in a single cell with solid walls and a solid door that closes. If symptoms develop during the 14-day period, the individual should be placed under medical isolation and evaluated for COVID-19. If symptoms do not develop, movement restrictions can be lifted, and the individual can return to their previous residency status within the facility.

Social Distancing – Social distancing is the practice of increasing the space between individuals and decreasing the frequency of contact to reduce the risk of spreading a disease (ideally to maintain at least 6 feet between all individuals, even those who are asymptomatic). Social distancing strategies can be applied on an individual level (e.g., avoiding physical contact), a group level (e.g., canceling group activities where individuals will be in close contact), and an operational level (e.g., rearranging chairs in the dining hall to increase distance between them). Although social distancing is challenging to practice in correctional and detention environments, it is a cornerstone of reducing transmission of respiratory diseases such as COVID-19. Additional information about social distancing, including information on its use to reduce the spread of other viral illnesses, is available in this CDC publicationpdf icon.

Staff – In this document, “staff” refers to all public sector employees as well as those working for a private contractor within a correctional facility (e.g., private healthcare or food service). Except where noted, “staff” does not distinguish between healthcare, custody, and other types of staff including private facility operators.

SymptomsSymptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Like other respiratory infections, COVID-19 can vary in severity from mild to severe. When severe, pneumonia, respiratory failure, and death are possible. COVID-19 is a novel disease, therefore the full range of signs and symptoms, the clinical course of the disease, and the individuals and populations most at risk for disease and complications are not yet fully understood. Monitor the CDC website for updates on these topics.

Facilities with Limited Onsite Healthcare Services

Although many large facilities such as prisons and some jails usually employ onsite healthcare staff and have the capacity to evaluate incarcerated/detained persons for potential illness within a dedicated healthcare space, many smaller facilities do not. Some of these facilities have access to on-call healthcare staff or providers who visit the facility every few days. Others have neither onsite healthcare capacity nor onsite medical isolation/quarantine space and must transfer ill patients to other correctional or detention facilities or local hospitals for evaluation and care.

The majority of the guidance below is designed to be applied to any correctional or detention facility, either as written or with modifications based on a facility’s individual structure and resources. However, topics related to healthcare evaluation and clinical care of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases and their close contacts may not apply directly to facilities with limited or no onsite healthcare services. It will be especially important for these types of facilities to coordinate closely with their state, local, tribal, and/or territorial health department when they encounter confirmed or suspected cases among incarcerated/detained persons or staff, in order to ensure effective medical isolation and quarantine, necessary medical evaluation and care, and medical transfer if needed. The guidance makes note of strategies tailored to facilities without onsite healthcare where possible.

Note that all staff in any sized facility, regardless of the presence of onsite healthcare services, should observe guidance on recommended PPE in order to ensure their own safety when interacting with confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases. Facilities should make contingency plans for the likely event of PPE shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Guidance for Correctional Facilities

Guidance for correctional and detention facilities is organized into 3 sections: Operational Preparedness, Prevention, and Management of COVID-19. Recommendations across these sections can be applied simultaneously based on the progress of the outbreak in a particular facility and the surrounding community.

  • Operational Preparedness. This guidance is intended to help facilities prepare for potential COVID-19 transmission in the facility. Strategies focus on operational and communications planning and personnel practices.
  • Prevention.  This guidance is intended to help facilities prevent spread of COVID-19 from outside the facility to inside. Strategies focus on reinforcing hygiene practices, intensifying cleaning and disinfection of the facility, screening (new intakes, visitors, and staff), continued communication with incarcerated/detained persons and staff, and social distancing measures (increasing distance between individuals).
  • Management. This guidance is intended to help facilities clinically manage confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases inside the facility and prevent further transmission. Strategies include medical isolation and care of incarcerated/detained persons with symptoms (including considerations for cohorting), quarantine of cases’ close contacts, restricting movement in and out of the facility, infection control practices for individuals interacting with cases and quarantined contacts or contaminated items, intensified social distancing, and cleaning and disinfecting areas visited by cases.

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