Prison infections continue to lead local coronavirus hotspots
At least seven prisons in rural towns across Oklahoma are coronavirus hotspots, joining some college campuses in the latest weekly jumps in active cases.
More than 830 inmates at William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply, in Woodward County, are infected with the virus, the Department of Corrections said in its latest test update. That outbreak pushed the 73841 ZIP code to the top of this week’s hotspot list, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis of data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
The spike in prison cases has come as inmates and their families continue to express concerns about testing, personal protective equipment and hygiene in prisons.
Scott Crow, director of the Corrections Department, said it’s difficult to control the spread of the virus in prisons because it’s hard to social distance in those settings. Inmates transferring from county jails and other prisons, as well as staff and visitors coming and going from local prisons, contribute to the risk. Inmates are tested on intake, but that test is a snapshot and may not capture positive cases in people who have just been exposed, Crow said.
Still, the department said it would begin mandatory testing of its 3,300 correctional officers. The agency said it was previously unsure of its legal position in requiring employee testing, leading to criticism from Democrats in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
“We are not perfect,” Crow said in a news conference in Oklahoma City on Tuesday. “And we continue on a daily basis to try to identify resources and new protocols or processes to mitigate this issue.”
More than 3,370 of the prison system’s 25,000 inmates have now tested positive for coronavirus, according to data released Friday. Crow said more than 90% of the inmates have been asymptomatic. There have been nine inmate deaths directly or indirectly linked to COVID-19, and three staff members have died.
Other large increases in active cases this week came in ZIP codes for Weatherford, Yukon and Elk City. Declines came in previous weeks’ hotspots, including Vinita, home to Northeast Oklahoma Community Corrections Center. The number of active cases in the 74301 ZIP code fell to 110 on Friday, down from 234 a week ago.
The state health department’s latest list of the contributing factors leading to new cases was dominated by prisons, along with universities and a Tyson processing plant in Garfield County. In the past 14 days, 431 new cases in Payne County were traced to Oklahoma State University, while more than 250 cases in Cleveland County were traced to the University of Oklahoma.
Gov. Kevin Stitt and interim Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye both implored college students to stay on campus, quarantine and seek treatment if they are infected with the coronavirus. They said several cases of community spread have been linked to college students returning to their hometowns if they test positive, increasing the risk of infection for family members and others in their home communities.
“Please, once you’re on campus, please stay on campus,” Stitt said on Tuesday. “That will allow us to contain the spread of the virus around the state. And remember, most college students are asymptomatic. Our colleges and universities all have plans in place to manage this virus and keep their students in a safe place.”
To date, there have been more than 82,500 cases of coronavirus in Oklahoma. The death toll stood at 993 on Friday. There were more than 12,600 active cases, while more than 68,900 Oklahomans have recovered from the virus since it was first detected in March.
The state health department on Friday elevated another 13 counties to the “orange” risk level on its COVID-19 alert map. Nine counties, meanwhile, were downgraded to the “yellow” risk level after being orange. Just one of the state’s 77 counties was in the “green” or “new normal” category: Harmon County in the far southwest corner of the state.
State health officials have been criticized for having an impossibly high bar to get to the “red” level in the state’s COVID-19 alert map. Frye said the red category is reserved in Oklahoma not just for high county case counts but also to indicate low PPE supplies or less hospital bed capacity for COVID-19 patients.
“We added the additional color for our internal use to tie it with our (hospital) surge plan in order to give us a trigger for action items for us,” Frye said on Thursday. “It’s a trigger for me to go to the governor and say, ‘We may need some executive orders here. We may need to stop elective surgeries or look at our stockpiles and start sending ventilators out.’ It was never meant to confuse people. We’ve always said their red is our orange.”
Other county maps, such as those issued by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, typically have multiple Oklahoma counties in red. The White House maps, however, have eight categories of map colors for new cases, including three in various shades of red.
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.