Outbreak at prison contributing to county's COVID-19 numbers

ADRIAN O'HANLON III | Staff photoAn outbreak at the Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in McAlester is contributing to Pittsburg County's record high number of active cases. 

An outbreak of COVID-19 at a local prison is contributing to the high numbers of active cases being reported in Pittsburg County.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections released new numbers Tuesday showing 112 inmates tested positive at the Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in McAlester after reporting only two COVID-19 postive inmates at the facility the previous day.

Oklahoma State Regional Health Department Director Juli Montgomery attributed a spike of 118 new active COVID-19 cases in Pittsburg County on Monday to the cases reported at JBCC.

“That was the majority of the cases reported,” Montgomery said.

Pittsburg County had 837 total cases, 599 assumed recoveries, 19 deaths, and 219 active cases as of Tuesday, according to Oklahoma State Health Department data.

Montgomery said her department will continue to work with ODOC to address cases and infection control consultation.

ODOC Director of Communications and Government Relations Justin Wolf said the department works with the State Department of Health to complete contract tracing and identify anybody potentially exposed to COVID-19.

Wolf said after inmates are quarantined, COVID-19 tests are performed and any inmates testing positive will be moved to isolation with the time of quarantine restarting for the rest of the group.

Quarantined and isolated inmates are kept away from healthy inmates in either a different wing or buildings, according to Wolf.

“Due to the two-week incubation period and inmates being asymptomatic, there’s just no way to identify a ‘patient zero’ within a facility,” Wolf said.

According to statewide ODOC numbers, there are 774 active inmate cases of COVID-19 — with JBCC reporting the third highest number at 112. There are zero inmate cases at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

More than 290 inmates are being quarantined at JBCC, according to the ODOC. The minimum-security facility also reported two active cases among staff with three counted as recovered.

JBCC, a minimum security prison in McAlester, reported 697 total inmates as of Sept. 14.

According to Wolf, the agency is doing everything it can to keep inmates and staff safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said staff undergo temperature checks at the beginning of their shifts and inmate crews clean areas around facilities.

“In one facility, we’ve used over 150 gallons of disinfectant in a single month,” Wolf said. “We’ve also recently deployed foggers which distributes a large volume of disinfectant over a large space very quickly.”

Wolf said visitations to facilities are currently on a “week on, week off” schedule and limited to immediate family members who must adhere to CDC guidelines and wear a mask to enter ODOC facilities.

On top of two free cloth masks for inmates, inmates are being given multiple bars of soap to help employ good hygiene and facilities have reduced the cost of soap for prisoners who wish to purchase soap from the canteen.

“We’re doing everything in our power to address any controllable source of spread of this virus,” Wolf said. “And we’re reevaluating those responses as we go.”

Wolf said he would like to address the rumor mill regarding prison conditions and the staff working at facilities.

“I would like to remind everybody that out staff are located inside the same facilities alongside the inmates and they have to go home to their families every night while dealing with the same exposure risks,” Wolf said. “The fact that our numbers were low for as long as they been, I think show our staff are taking their care and the inmates’ care very seriously.”

When asked about any potential stress on staffing, Wolf said the pandemic is causing additional stress to the agency’s workforce.

“We’re always trying to get more staff and we’re always hiring here at the Department of Corrections,” Wolf said. “But the pandemic adds one more potential reason for people not being able to come to work. It’s something that we’re addressing and we’re doing everything we can to address appropriate staffing levels at all time.”

Contact Derrick James at djames@mcalesternews.com

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