Prisoners at Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institutions may have access as early as this week to a new therapy to treat COVID-19 patients at risk of being hospitalized. 

Patients in Rhode Island began receiving monoclonal antibodies for COVID-19 in late November, and the treatment is now being expanded for use in the state prison system, where more than a third of the inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus. 

“We are setting up monoclonal antibody therapies to have them available hopefully very soon, even potentially this week,” Dr. Justin Berk, acting medical director for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, said in an interview on Tuesday. 

Berk stepped in as acting medical director last week, when the previous medical director, Dr. Jennifer Clarke, resigned during an outbreak of COVID-19 that has infected more than 90% of inmates in the prison’s maximum security facility. Berk previously worked at the ACI as a part-time physician under a contract with Brown University, where he is an assistant professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School.

The new antibody treatment was granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration in November, and has been shown to reduce the need for hospitalization for patients with COVID-19.

Berk said the prison will use the Department of Health’s criteria to determine which patients are eligible for the treatment—namely those who are at high risk of being hospitalized due to their age or pre-existing conditions. 

He said the hour-long infusion will be administered by Department of Corrections nurses in the prison’s hospital unit, with the goal of “preventing any possible severe infection in the future." 

Of the more than 2,100 people incarcerated at the ACI, 771 have so far tested positive for the coronavirus and four have been hospitalized.

But Berk said he’s “tentatively optimistic” that the spread of the coronavirus within the prison is slowing. During the week ending November 28, 262 inmates tested positive for the virus, but the weekly number of new cases has now fallen for two weeks in a row.  

Berk attributed the spike in cases to increased community spread outside the prison. 

“No jail is an island," Berk commented. "Despite this picture of high fences sealed off from society, there are people coming in. Yes, correctional officers, but also staff attorneys, physicians, dentists, social workers, lawyers."

He said the corrections department is continuing to try to slow the spread of the virus by keeping inmates in small groups, social distancing, and providing masks and cleaning supplies. 

Advocates, academics, the Public Defender’s office, and former Medical Director Dr. Jennifer Clarke have made the case that the best way to reduce transmission of the virus is to lower the number of people held within the prison, through early release or reducing the use of cash bail.