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Nevada reports 1st coronavirus case among state’s prisoners

Updated May 20, 2020 - 5:16 pm

The Nevada Department of Corrections on Wednesday announced a “comprehensive” plan to test prisoners for the new coronavirus.

Officials made the announcement shortly after the first case of a Nevada prisoner testing positive for the virus was reported.

“This is a moment we feared but expected,” Sherrie Royster, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said in a statement.

Royster has called for an increase in prisoner testing and transparency from the Department of Corrections during the pandemic.

According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services that was last updated Wednesday, an inmate at High Desert State Prison has tested positive for the virus. The prison is in Indian Springs, about 40 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The prisoner who tested positive was transferred from the Clark County Detention Center to the prison on April 22, according to a news release from the Department of Corrections. The inmate was housed in the prison’s “intake unit” for new prisoners, where they are kept isolated for a minimum of 20 days because of the virus, although the department also said the man had a cellmate.

He tested positive on Monday, when he was taken to a hospital for “unrelated medical care,” according to the news release. At the time he had no symptoms of the virus.

“As the offender was still in the intake unit, no offenders in HDSP’s general population were exposed,” the news release said.

As of Wednesday, 18 Department of Corrections employees had tested positive for the virus. Four of those employees work at High Desert State Prison.

The only facility run by the department where more employees have tested positive is the Indian Springs Southern Training Center, where six employees had confirmed cases as of Wednesday, according to state data.

Testing plan coming ‘soon’

The first case of a Department of Corrections employee testing positive was reported on March 26, and the employee worked at High Desert State Prison.

Since Tuesday, two more people have recovered from the virus, bringing the total number of recoveries in the department to 15, according to the state data.

According to Wednesday’s news release, the department is finalizing a plan to test prisoners at all of its correctional facilities, and it will be “implemented soon.”

The department is working on the testing plan with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory. The plan “aligns with the State’s goal to increase testing statewide and protect vulnerable populations,” the news release said.

Further details about the testing plan were not released.

The number of inmates who had been tested for the virus wasn’t publicly released until April 29, when department Director Charles Daniels said during a meeting of the Nevada Sentencing Commission that 39 inmates had been tested. Department spokesman Scott Kelley has said that, as of May 11, 56 inmates had been tested for the virus.

On May 14, the Review-Journal reported that 0.45 percent of Nevada prisoners had been tested, according to data from The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. In an emailed statement sent May 12, Kelley said the department was proud that no prisoners had tested positive.

‘Preventing the spread’

The total number of inmates who had been tested as of Wednesday was not immediately clear, although the department said inmates in the “affected housing unit” at High Desert have been tested, and the results are pending.

The prisoner who tested positive was not the first within Nevada’s criminal justice system to have a confirmed case, but he was the first under state custody. According to an April 17 news release from the Metropolitan Police Department, which operates the Clark County Detention Center, four inmates at the jail had tested positive.

It was not known Wednesday if any other inmates at the county jail have since tested positive.

The Department of Corrections said that in order to contain the virus at High Desert State Prison, the facility’s intake unit had begun “modified operations.” The cellmate of the man who tested positive was moved into medical isolation.

Staff who may have come into contact with the inmate who tested positive are self-isolating and will return to work after they test negative for the virus and are cleared by the department’s medical director, according to the news release. Also, employees who work in the intake unit have been given “full personal protective equipment,” including gloves, booties and N-95 masks.

“Now that we have a confirmed offender case, our next goal is mitigating and preventing the spread of the virus,” Daniels said in a statement.

Royster said that should have been the department’s primary focus all along.

“We will continue to monitor NDOC’s response to this virus and will explore all options to ensure that proper steps are taken to protect people who are incarcerated from COVID-19,” she said.

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

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