N.C. Prisons Now Performing Its Own COVID-19 Tests

Author: Brad Deen, Communications Officer

Rapid molecular testing is anticipated to save Prisons time and money

N.C. Prisons has invested in a newly approved COVID-19 testing platform, eliminating the need for outside labs to test for the virus.

Prison Staff conducting COVID testing
Lab manager Katie Gaffney of MD-BIO (right) walks Central Prison medical personnel -(from left) lab technician Donna Sulton, nurse director Elissa Brody and lab technician Kenyetta Johnson - through the procedures during a training session for a new molecular testing system

Over the past two weeks, eight prison medical facilities across the state have set up a MobileDetect-BIO molecular testing system, and their lab technicians have received training and certification. Each unit can perform multiple tests simultaneously and provide results in 30 minutes.

Results from outside labs took as long as three days at the height of the pandemic and cost $100 each. N.C. Prisons tested staff and offenders multiple times each — 118,00 total tests for staff and 130,000 for offenders.

Outside labs “really stepped up for us,” said Tim Moose, chief deputy secretary for adult correction and juvenile justice for the N.C. Department of Public Safety. “Their ability to add our tests to their already considerable load helped us to manage the spread of the disease inside our prisons and prevent it from becoming far worse.”

MobileDetect-BIO’s testing platform earned emergency use authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration last September, which put internal testing within the prison system’s reach.

Prisons Commissioner Todd Ishee said he expects the $1.2 million diagnostic upgrade to save time, improve operations and eventually pay for itself.

“This is another shield to protect us from the coronavirus,” Ishee said. “We can now make quicker decisions when it comes to protecting the health and safety of our staff and the people in our custody.”

While waiting for test results, prisons had to take measures to prevent a possible spread of the virus. Isolating staff or offenders could strain prison operations — needlessly, if the test results were negative.

Dr. Les Campbell, chief medical officer for N.C. Prisons, said the new testing capability provides for a much more expeditious response to potential outbreaks. “This will allow us to more quickly identify cases, separate individuals, prevent further spread and, ultimately, save lives,” Dr. Campbell said. “Our clinicians and nurses have been on the front lines for a year now. This capability is a game changer, not only for the current pandemic, but also as a strategic capability for us well into the future.”

Besides COVID-19, other infections such as streptococcus bacteria, flu viruses and COVID-19 variants are within the testing potential for the MobileDetect-BIO system.

Prison staff conducting COVID testing
Central Prison lab technician Kenyetta Johnson loads samples into a heater unit during a training session for a new molecular testing system, which can perform up to 96 tests at once and deliver results in 30 minutes. Once heated to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit, chemical reagents added to the testing samples will turn either yellow (positive for the coronavirus) or red (negative).

N.C. Prisons bought two different versions of the system. The larger one tests up to 96 samples at a time and is located at the Central Prison Healthcare Complex in Raleigh. The smaller version tests up to eight samples at a time. Seven other prisons across the state have the smaller units.

The testing is molecular, which detects the virus’s genetic material. According to the FDA, a molecular test “is highly accurate and usually does not need to be repeated.” 

Another type of rapid test, an antigen test, detects specific proteins on the virus. The FDA cautions that an antigen test’s positive results “are usually highly accurate, but negative results may need to be confirmed with a molecular test.” 

The third type of COVID-19 test detects antibodies, which indicate whether someone was exposed to the virus, but not whether and infection is active.

Prisons has used antigen testing for COVID-19 to a limited degree, Dr. Campbell said, but the more accurate and reliable molecular testing will “greatly supplement our capability.”

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