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Stark differences in COVID-19 case numbers noted in Missouri prisons

Erik Cliburn
Moberly Monitor-Index
Moberly Correctional Center

Missouri prisons are seeing wildly different numbers of COVID-19 cases depending on the facility.

The prisons in Vandalia, Farmington and Bonne Terre each have more than 300 cumulative cases, while others, such as Bowling Green, Kansas City and Potosi have cases in the single digits, according to Missouri Department of Corrections data.

As of Thursday afternoon, the department reported 738 active COVID-19 cases among inmates in the state’s prisons. The bulk of those those cases are located in the Farmington Correctional Center, which has 274 active offender cases, and the Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, which has 177 active offender cases.

Since March, the department has reported 2,085 total coronavirus cases among offenders, with 1,347 of those patients recovering. There is one reported death linked to COVID-19 in the state’s prison system, so far, department spokesperson Karen Pojmann said.

That is more than double the number of prisoners infected at the beginning of September.

The department has conducted more than 54,800 COVID-19 tests since the pandemic began and recently started testing the various facilities’ wastewater to find potential traces of the virus, she said.

“If we find elevated levels of the virus in wastewater, we sample test the population, quarantine the housing unit or work area where positive cases occurred,” she said.

Boxed-in testing of units also occurs. Offenders who test positive are moved to an isolation unit, while the remaining are quarantined for two weeks before returning to the general population.

Most of the cases did not have symptoms, and those who had mild symptoms did not always report them, Pojmann said.

“Wastewater testing is a pretty effective tool for identifying and containing cases and preventing widespread outbreaks throughout a facility,” she said.

Some facilities, such as the Moberly Correctional Center have seen a spike in cases. While the Moberly prison’s 16 active inmate cases are significantly lower than some other facilities, active cases there were as low as two last week.

Active cases in prisons are counted as part of a respective county’s COVID case total, which partially accounts for a recent spike in Randolph County’s active cases, Randolph County Health Department Administrator Sharon Whisenand said.

At the Moberly prison, the department had initially implemented sample testing for 10% of the prison population, including staff and inmates, but testing was adjusted to include those who had come into close contact with a positive COVID-19 patient.

“At this point, offenders who test positive are placed in isolation,” Pojmann wrote. “A housing wing may be quarantined if someone living in the wing tests positive.”

Despite the recent spike, the Moberly prison and the Jefferson City Correctional Center’s case numbers have remained low when compared to the two other mid-Missouri prisons in Boonville and Vandalia. Since March, the Vandalia prison has reported 316 total COVID-19 cases among inmates, 177 of which are active, and 24 staff cases, 12 of which are active. The Boonville Correctional Center has reported 137 total inmate cases, though only 22 were active as of Thursday afternoon. The Boonville prison has also reported 49 total staff cases, with nine of those being active.

Tim Cutt, a representative with the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, did not respond to calls seeking comment regarding prison staff cases.

ecliburn@moberlymonitor.com