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Nevada officials report COVID-19 outbreak at prison work camp

Updated November 23, 2020 - 4:40 pm

More than 80 percent of the prisoners at a Humboldt County work camp have tested positive for COVID-19, making it the second Department of Corrections facility to confront an outbreak of the coronavirus.

Seventy-nine of 95 prisoners at the Humboldt Conservation Camp in Winnemucca have tested positive for the virus, according to a statement Friday from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Corrections.

All of the prisoners at the camp, operated through the Lovelock Correctional Center, were tested Nov. 12 “as part of routine and ongoing testing,” the statement said.

Two weeks ago, the department had reported only 27 prisoner cases since the start of the pandemic. That number skyrocketed when an outbreak at Warm Springs Correctional Center was reported, with nearly 90 percent of the facility’s prisoners testing positive for the virus as of Friday.

There are 646 cases among Nevada prisoners as of Friday. The largest outbreak at Warm Springs Correctional Center has seen 470 prisoner cases.

The health department on Friday also announced it entered into a $10 million contract with Quest Diagnostics for COVID-19 testing through December at state prisons and veterans homes. It was unclear how much of the testing would go toward the prisons.

“This contract will help reduce the burden on the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory, where NDOC testing currently accounts for 26 percent of the total number of tests,” according to the statement.

The contract will cover 100,000 molecular tests in the state. Testing through Quest also will be available to counties “experiencing surges in cases and increased demand,” the statement said.

Update on prison outbreaks

At Humboldt Conservation Camp, prisoners who have tested positive are being isolated in two-man rooms, while the 16 prisoners who have not tested positive are being housed in a separate wing, the statement said. Everyone who tested negative Nov. 12 was retested Thursday, and the results were pending.

Of those who have tested positive, nine have reported symptoms, the statement said. All prisoners will be retested Wednesday.

Eleven employees work at the camp, six of whom are currently not working because of a positive test result or close contact with someone who had tested positive. Staff members from Lovelock Correctional Center are currently assisting the remaining employees, the statement said.

Prisoners at Warm Springs Correctional Center remain on lockdown, and the “majority” are not experiencing symptoms, the statement said. Three prisoners were taken to a hospital, but all have since been discharged. One prisoner remained on oxygen at the facility.

While the Warm Springs facility is on lockdown, prisoners have about three to four chances each week to call home and shower during 30-minute breaks outside their cells, the statement said.

“Safety of our offenders and staff continues to be the highest priority of all Nevada Department of Corrections facilities, and staff are working to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of offenders on lockdown,” the statement said.

Call for transparency

On Thursday, prisoner advocates and family members held a virtual news conference to call for more action from the state to respond to the outbreak at the Warm Springs Correctional Center, which they called a “human rights crisis.”

The news conference was held by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and prisoner advocacy groups Mass Liberation Project and Return Strong. Jodi Hocking, the founder of Return Strong, said there has been little communication from the Department of Corrections or Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office throughout the pandemic.

“Not one word from the governor’s office — no outrage, no concern, no action — just more silence,” said Hocking, whose significant other is incarcerated at a different Nevada prison. “Meanwhile, families are sitting here choking on our fear.”

ACLU policy director Holly Welborn said the state should move to release high-risk prisoners or those with less than six months left on their sentence to slow the spread of the virus, a recommendation the organization has been pushing since March.

“This is not an attempt to try to expedite some sort of ‘quote, criminal justice reform agenda,’ ” she said Thursday. “This is a human rights crisis occurring in Nevada prisons.”

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @knewberg on Twitter.

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