The correctional complex on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia will begin coronavirus testing for the 3,800 people incarcerated in its four city jails, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms, officials announced Tuesday.

The city’s correctional facilities on State Road experienced an alarming outbreak in late March, which infected dozens within a matter of days — despite stringent lockdown conditions.

As of Tuesday, just three people residing at correctional facilities are currently considered positive for the virus. Nearly 200 have been infected to date. Until now, testing has been limited to people exhibiting symptoms. As Billy Penn reported in early May, 75% of all inmates tested in jails came back positive — an infection rate more than three times higher than the city’s population in general.

Advocates and health experts have said that the full scope of the spread in correctional facilities remains a mystery without wider testing.

Now, that’s being rolled out.

Prison Commissioner Blanche Carney said the one-time universal testing will be rolled out Wednesday.

“It’ll take us about two weeks to test the whole population and we anticipate releasing the results [after that],” Carney said, mentioning early June as a target.

Universal testing has yielded alarming results in other close-quarter settings, including those in the Philadelphia region. In suburban Montgomery County, officials tested nearly 1,000 incarcerated people last month and found 177 carrying the virus. Only six of those people showed any symptoms.

After Montco’s results became public, Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley said he didn’t necessarily see a clear benefit to universal testing behind bars. Last week, however, the city health department broadened its recommendations for testing to include all people living in congregate care settings, including jails. 

“I think we’re going to learn with this, and this is an opportunity to see if we were missing a substantial number of cases that should have been isolated,” Farley said Tuesday.

The citywide total of around 20,000 positive cases is likely a massive undercount, he added. By how much remains unclear.  “I don’t know if it’s a third or a fifth — or more,” Farley said.

Citywide, Philadelphia currently tests about 1,500 people a day, Farley said. He hopes to get the number to 5,000 a day in the near future.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...