LANSING – Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility will be closed to visitors most of next week as all 2,000 women in prison are isolated and treated for scabies, officials said Monday.

Officials hope the move will end a situation that has lasted one year, with more than 200 women complaining of itchy rash from an unknown cause in the prison near Ypsilanti.

Dr. Carmen McIntyre, Chief Medical Officer of the Michigan Department of Corrections, would not acknowledge errors in prison handling during the conference call on Monday. But she said it would have helped if dermatologists had been taken to prison earlier than officials who sent samples and some prisoners outside the dermatologist's prison. It happened only after Christmas.

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The woman's Huron Valley Correctional Facility is seen Tuesday, May 17, 2016 in Ypsilanti, MI.

Correspondence spokesman Chris Gautz said 39 women have tested positive for scabies – a skin infection caused by a microscopic mite – and have already been treated with Ivermectin, a pill used to fight parasites.

On Monday, another 224 women who have complained about skin rashes with some of their cell mates will be isolated for 24 hours, have their clothes and linens laundered and also receive the pills, Gautz said.

And next week, officials plan to do the same with all 2,070 inmates at Michigan's only women's prison, in groups of 500, he said. This process is expected to begin Tuesday and late Friday, during which time the prison will be closed to visitors, he said.

If not treated properly, the mites can live on the skin for several months, chopping and laying eggs and causing an itchy red rash.

Gautz said he was not aware of any precedent for such mass treatment.

"This is an unusual event, but we will solve this and it is the best way the experts say to do it" he said. "People can wear it and have no symptoms and have no clue so it's best to treat everyone."

Prisoners who refuse medicine will be isolated until officials are satisfied that they are not at risk of spreading the infection, he said.

"Everyone wants to see this come to an end," Gautz said. "We are hopeful, we will not see too many people rejecting it."

More: At least 24 cases of scabies found in Michigan's only woman's prison

More: Itchy rash spread by woman's prison in Mich. officials accuse prisoners

McIntyre said the drug should kill the mites immediately, but itching, which may be worse at night, could continue for four to six weeks.

Although Gautz said the response to the treatment plan from prisoners has been largely positive, several prisoners and their family members have expressed skepticism at the scabies diagnosis and believe rash is caused by mold or other environmental problem inside the prison.

Free Press first reported on the outbreak in March, after February officials quarantined and treated for scabies prisoners embedded in only the two Gladwin units, where the outbreak seemed concentrated at that time.

But the problem continued and spread to at least eight of the prison's 15 units as skin scrapers continued to test negative for scabies and officials searched for other possible sources of rash. Over the course of months, many samples were collected inside the prison and sent to outside doctors for analysis returned negative for scabies, McIntyre and Gautz said.

At the beginning of December, Gautz imprisoned prisoners and said unauthorized mixing of laundry detergents seemed to be the cause of rash. McIntyre said Monday that is still suspected of causing some of the rashes.

Gautz has also repeatedly said that rashes were not contagious. Scabies are contagious through skin to skin contact as well as in contact with contaminated clothing, bedding or furniture.

When the problem was persistent and spread, a dermatologist abroad was brought to prison a few days after Christmas and began testing women for scabies with positive results, Gautz said. These findings were recently confirmed by another dermatologist, after which an epidemiologist recommended the extraordinary measures the prison plans to take this week and next week.

Last year, about 10 women were sent to outside dermatologists, Gautz said. Their test came back negatively, as did about 10 skin scrapes sent to dermatologists outside the prison.

It is not surprising that so many tests came back negatively because it is difficult to take a skin scratch in the right place to show signs of the mites, McIntyre said.

McIntyre did not say that all women have scabies, even those with rashes. Some suffer from other skin conditions, she said. Some women also carried scabies without showing symptoms, resulting in some women who were already treated being reborn through skin for skin contact, she said.

The tests did not show signs of mold or mold problems in the prison she said.

Asked if there was anything she would have done differently in dealing with the outbreak, McIntyre said, "Not really." Asked if it would have helped if dermatologists had previously been taken to prison, she said yes.

McIntyre said there are no significant health effects of having scabies for a long time, but itching over a long period of time can destroy skin and cause scarring, she said.

Ivermectin is not recommended for people who are allergic to it, are pregnant or are breastfeeding. McIntyre said there is an alternative treatment, a cream called permethrin, for those women.

Another round of treatment that does not require isolation is planned for several weeks from now, Gautz said.

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @ paulegan4.

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