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WASHINGTON — Fourteen senators are demanding that the federal Bureau of Prisons explain its scant use of Covid-19 therapeutics.

The letter is based on STAT’s May reporting showing that the agency used just a fraction of the Covid-19 drugs it was allotted by the federal government. It urges the bureau’s leadership to revamp its approach toward Covid-19 testing in an effort to catch more infections that could benefit from these drugs, which need to be given early in a person’s illness.

“The experience of the pandemic for the federally incarcerated population remains starkly worse than for non-incarcerated individuals. This discrepancy can only be addressed through affirmative, comprehensive changes from the Bureau of Prisons … to improve the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, testing, and therapeutics. We write to urge you to make those improvements as soon as possible,” the letter states.

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The new letter, which was spearheaded by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), was signed by a number of the Senate’s most health care-focused lawmakers, including Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) Four members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Bureau of Prisons, also signed the letter. They are: Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.)

STAT reported that federal prisons had only prescribed 363 doses of antivirals since the first proven drug was authorized in May 2020. The federal agency had only prescribed Pfizer’s Paxlovid — the drug currently being taken by President Biden — three times from December 2021, when the drug was first authorized by the Food and Drug Administration, to March 24, 2022.

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The Department of Health and Human Services, which manages the distribution of Covid-19 drugs to federal agencies and states, has told lawmakers that the Bureau of Prisons has consistently declined additional Covid-19 therapeutics, despite the federal health department’s efforts.

“Each week, our therapeutics team reaches out to BoP notifying them of their allocation amount/amount they can order. … We have … reached out multiple times to BoP asking them why they do not want their allocations offered by HHS. They consistently say they have enough to meet demand/their demand is low,” the health department wrote in an email to the lawmakers dated May 4.

The lawmakers are seeking a slew of information from the Bureau of Prisons by Sept. 9, including data on the turnaround time for Covid-19 tests and the policies governing when incarcerated people are tested.

The lawmakers also want an answer as to why the Bureau of Prisons did not prescribe more Paxlovid, whether more doses of the drug have been prescribed since March, and the steps the agency is taking to increase uptake of the drug, which has been proven to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19.

The senators also wrote a separate letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement raising similar concerns over the scant use of therapeutics, and lack of compliance with existing testing protocols.

ICE has a particularly checkered record with Covid-19 testing. A federal judge chastised the agency in December 2020 for “deliberately avoid[ing] testing detainees … for fear that the results would require them to take expensive and logistically challenging safety measures.” The government’s own watchdog also found in September 2021 that “testing of both detainees and staff was insufficient.”

“Vaccinations, timely testing, and access to therapeutics play a critical role in continuing to combat the Covid-19 virus, and BOP and ICE have a responsibility to provide this care to individuals in their custody,” said Cardin in a statement.

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