Seven offenders and seven staff members of the state prison for women in Vandalia have tested positive for COVID-19 during a mass testing program.

The cases were found among 1,477 prisoners and staff tested Tuesday and Wednesday, the Audrain County Health Department confirmed Thursday afternoon. The offenders were put into the facility’s isolation unit, Department of Corrections Communications Director Karen Pojmann said.

The state has done contact tracing for those who tested positive and none of the close contacts have tested positive, health Administrator Sandra Hewlett said.

The new cases come as part of testing operations this week from the Missouri Department of Corrections. The corrections center testing is part of a three-pronged approach from Gov. Mike Parson to test residential facilities, Hewlett said.

"This is from the Department of Health and Senior Services to test correctional facilities, nursing homes and community testing," she said.

Prior to the mass testing event at correctional facilities, those presenting symptoms of COVID-19 and those possibly exposed were tested. There probably has been more testing at Vandalia since it is a reception, diagnostic and correctional center, Pojmann said.

"That means people are coming in there from county jail," she said.

Three positive results at the Vandalia facility were from before the mass testing event. Two of the three were staff cases. They were sent home and kept away from facility, Pojmann said. The third was from an out-of-state offender who immediately was put into the facility’s isolation unit upon arrival.

"We also have begun testing all offenders on intake," Pojmann said. "We are testing all offenders one week before they are released to make sure no one is going back out into the community positive with COVID-19."

Five staff members of the Women’s Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Center who tested positive this week for COVID-19 are Audrain County residents and two live elsewhere, Hewlett said.

The health department is managing results from the testing operations at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia.

The first cases of COVID-19 at correctional facilities were confirmed in April, with the majority coming from the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston.

"There were three offenders there who tested positive from the same wing of the same housing unit," Pojmann said. "We put the whole housing unit in quarantine as soon as those three showed symptoms and we tested everybody in that wing."

Additional testing May 26 at the Charleston facility found two more positive cases from those without symptoms. Chillicothe had no positive cases among staff or offenders. There were three cases in Bonne Terre from recent testing.

"We are using the same strategy we have been using all along, which is to isolate any offender who has symptoms or who has been exposed to make sure they do not have contact with other offenders," Pojmann said.

For staff members that test positive, they are sent home for 14 days and must have a negative test result before they can return. Staff who are potentially exposed also are put on 14 days administrative leave and can return to work if they have not exhibited any symptoms.

The department stopped allowing visitors in early March and implemented a virus containment plan. This included limiting the number of interactions between offenders and staff, Pojman said.

Offenders in housing units were moved as groups and did not interact with other housing units for meals, recreation and other activities.

"So, they were only interacting with one another and not with residents from other units," Pojmann

Large group activities also were suspended, such as church services. Educators went into housing units to teach rather than offenders from multiple units coming to a central classroom. Facility transfers were suspended, as well as volunteer programs and other partner programs. A viral cleaning schedule was implemented and the cleaning supply inventory was tracked.

Face masks were made for staff and offenders, with all offenders receiving at least two masks. Hand sanitizer was made in Bonne Terre for the correctional centers. Staff and offenders also have regular temperature screenings.

"We all are really proud of how well our staff have done at taking this pandemic seriously and ensuring that we are keeping everyone as safe as possible," Pojmann said. "The aggressive approach we have taken has helped us avoid more serious problems [than other states]."

All of the The Mexico Ledger’s coronavirus coverage is being provided free to our readers. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to The Mexico Ledger at Help keep local businesses afloat at