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Wastewater from Kentucky prisons will be studied in hopes of fighting coronavirus

As outbreaks at prisons proliferate, the state has a new vision to control them.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Sewer water may be key to combating COVID-19 outbreaks at our state prisons. That’s according to a new plan announced yesterday during Governor Beshear’s daily coronavirus briefing. 

“They’re saying they’re doing all they can to help us and they’re not," said 44-year-old Teko Hatfield. He's an inmate at the Kentucky State Reformatory. Last month, he tested positive for COVID-19.

“I had an aching body, no taste, no appetite whatsoever," he said. 

He’s one of nearly 250 people at his prison who’ve tested positive for coronavirus. Nine people have died.

“The numbers can’t be right," he said. 

Hatfield said he believes the numbers are far higher.

As outbreaks at prisons proliferate, the state has a new vision to control them.

“We are going to start a multi-month pilot program and test the waste water, that’s sewage," said Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky's public health commissioner.

On Tuesday, he announced a plan to start wastewater testing at Hatfield’s prison, the Kentucky State Reformatory, and the Correctional Institution for Women. Both facilities have had COVID-19 cases in the hundreds.

Back in June, we interviewed Ted Smith, a researcher at the University of Louisville, about the impact of wastewater testing to fight COVID-19.

“In some places they’ve been able to precede outbreaks by as much as a week by looking in the wastewater in communities," he said. 

Since May, he and his team have been studying water samples around Louisville to predict where outbreaks may happen.

“This is potentially a really effective, cost-effective tool for communities to get a handle on where they are with this infection," said Smith. 

“We’re still trying to do a number of innovative things in Kentucky here to try to help keep people safe in different ways than having a q-tip in your nose," said Dr. Stack yesterday during Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear's daily coronavirus briefing. 

Hatfield’s mother said she welcomes those efforts.

"What’s your reaction to wastewater testing at your son’s prison?" FOCUS investigative reporter Paula Vasan asked Hatfield. 

“I think it’s very important for everyone," she said.

But she said she wonders why action hasn’t come sooner. She wishes lessons were learned more quickly from earlier outbreaks at other prisons, like Green River Correctional Complex.

“I feel they were not prepared for this outbreak," said Hatfield. 

Researchers hope sewer water testing will help them anticipate outbreaks. Their goal: contain the virus, limit the spread, and then decide how to address it. 

RELATED: Down the drain: Sewer water could be an early warning sign of COVID-19

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