Updated June 17, 2020 - 5:05 pm
The Nevada Department of Corrections has gone from testing less than half of 1 percent of prisoners for the coronavirus to testing nearly three-fourths of people in the department’s custody as of this week.
The increase started after the department announced May 20 it would begin working with the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct widespread testing in the prison facilities. Department spokesman Scott Kelley in an email Wednesday that 8,766 prisoners had been tested for the virus, along with 1,563 employees.
There are 12,382 people in the department’s custody, Kelley said in an email Friday. That means about 71 percent of the state’s prisoners have been tested for the virus. Kelley said Wednesday that the staff members tested represented about 52 percent of employees.
Four weeks ago, 0.45 percent of Nevada’s prisoners had been tested.
As of Wednesday, nine prisoners had tested positive for the virus, as had 33 department employees, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. No prisoners or employees have died.
In May, advocates questioned how the department was confident that no prisoners were sick with the virus if there weren’t many being tested. On May 13, the Review-Journal reported that three of 39 states with available overall testing information had tested a lower percentage of inmates than Nevada, according to data from The Marshall Project and The Associated Press.
But when new testing information from the Department of Corrections is compared with data from The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, which was last updated Saturday, it shows that Nevada has now tested the sixth-highest percentage of inmates among states that have reported testing information.
There are five states that have not reported testing numbers for prisoners, and an additional four states that have only reported the total number of tests given, instead of the number of prisoners tested.
The announcement of widespread testing at prison facilities came the same day it was reported the first prisoner had tested positive for the virus. Kelley said Wednesday that officials had finished testing all prisoners at three work camps and four prisons — High Desert State Prison, Southern Desert Correctional Center, Lovelock Correctional Center and Northern Nevada Correctional Center.
Work in progress
Testing is still in progress at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center, Casa Grande Transitional Housing and three other work camps, Kelley said. Testing is also scheduled for inmates at Ely State Prison, he said Wednesday.
Widespread testing has not happened at Warm Springs Correctional Center, which can hold up to 532 prisoners, according to the department’s website. Officials have also not begun more testing at the Northern Nevada Transitional Housing and the Ely, Pioche and Wells conservation camps, Kelley said.
“There has not been widespread testing at the remaining facilities as the Nevada State Public Health Lab has a set number they can process each day,” Kelley said last week in an emailed statement. “However, plans are in-place to test our remaining facilities soon. NDOC’s partnership with Nevada Department of Health and Human Services and the State Lab has been fantastic. ”
In a news release May 25, the department said the Department of Health and Human Services and the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory are processing the specimens, and are able to test about 500 daily.
The plan is to test all prisoners at each facility, Scott said.
“Thus far, offenders have been very cooperative about being tested for COVID-19,” he said.
All the tests being conducted are nose or cheek swab viral tests, not antibody tests, Kelley said Friday. The department does have access to antibody tests, which can determine if a prisoner had the virus and then recovered, but they are “not part of the statewide testing initiative currently underway,” he said.
The department also announced May 25 that officials distributed 5,000 tests to medical staff in Southern Nevada, and 3,000 in Northern Nevada. It was unclear if more tests have been distributed since then, but Kelley said the department “has the ability to order more COVID-19 tests, if needed.”
In early May, weeks before the widespread testing began, the Nevada Supreme Court denied a petition to free vulnerable and elderly state prisoners because of the coronavirus. The Review-Journal in late April reported that documents showed a coronavirus outbreak in the prison system could overwhelm the department.
The nine prisoners who have tested positive reported by the Department of Health and Human Services represent an infection rate of about 0.07 percent, which is relatively low when compared with those of other states. But because the widespread testing didn’t begin until late May, there may be more prisoners who have been sick but then recovered.
State data shows that as of Wednesday, five prisoners have tested positive at High Desert State Prison, one at Lovelock Correctional Center, one at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, and two at the Tonopah Conservation Camp.
As of Wednesday, there were 11,842 cases of coronavirus in all of Nevada, and 473 deaths.