By Arielle Dreher / The Spokesman-Review
State officials are considering expanding COVID-19 testing at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, where few inmates have been tested despite a high rate of positive results and many have been placed in isolation after being exposed to the virus.
As of Tuesday, Coyote Ridge had tested just 129 of its more than 2,000 inmates for COVID-19 despite it being nearly three weeks since the first cases were found inside the Connell prison in late May.
So far, 83 of those incarcerated individuals have tested positive. That’s a 64% positive rate. Twenty-one inmates have been sent up to Airway Heights Corrections Center, where a regional care facility was set up to treat inmates who need more medical attention.
Thirty-eight staff members have also tested positive for the disease.
More than 1,800 inmates who may have been exposed to the virus are currently quarantined from others. But last week, the Department of Corrections said they were only testing symptomatic inmates and had no plans to test everyone.
As cases continue to rise among inmates and staff, the department’s tune began to change this week.
“We’ve been having a variety of conversations with the Department of Corrections about their testing protocol. They are looking into the options with regard to significantly expanded testing at Coyote Ridge,” Reed Schuler, senior policy adviser to Gov. Jay Inslee, said on a press call Tuesday.
He said that there should be news about testing efforts at Coyote Ridge later this week.
For Washingtonians with loved ones inside Coyote Ridge, where the largest outbreak in a prison statewide is happening, that seems too late.
Some worry that the virus can easily spread among incarcerated individuals, especially on units where men share cells and close living quarters. Last week, the medium security complex was put on “restricted movement” due to the virus’ spread, but the minimum security complex was not.
At-risk individuals at Coyote Ridge were moved to a unit called Sage East early on in the pandemic, where correctional officers must stay if they begin a shift on the unit. Otherwise, correctional officers, who wear and use personal protective equipment, are not required to stay on specific units.
“There may be situations that staff would work in an area and then work in another area during the same shift or on an additional shift,” a statement from DOC to The Spokesman-Review said.
Danielle Carlson, a certified nursing assistant who formerly worked at a Yakima nursing home at the outset of the pandemic, is concerned about the outbreak. Her boyfriend is incarcerated at Coyote Ridge. That correctional officers are able to go back and forth between units concerns Carlson, especially because they are the only ones who move between units, allowing for the possibility for the virus to move with them.
When COVID-19 came to Yakima, she was required to work in the same section at her nursing home and could not move from unit to unit, she said, so why, she wonders, should correctional officers be allowed to move?
“If you don’t have enough people, you should send people (inmates) home, or start hiring other people,” she said.
Carlson is still able to speak with her boyfriend daily because his unit is not yet locked down , but he is in a cell with at least one other person and with several others on his unit, she said. Carlson said once her nursing home got one positive coronavirus case, they tested everyone, finding some people who tested positive despite showing no symptoms.
“Even if you don’t have symptoms, I think people should get tested,” she said.
Ultimately, Carlson just wants her boyfriend and those like him, who only have a few months left until their release, to be protected from COVID-19.
“It’s sad that these people who are about ready to get out but can’t have to deal with this, even though they might not want to test everyone because it costs money,” she said. “Are you trying to make sure these people can go home to their families? It’s scary to think about when you have a loved one in there.”
As of June 10, 33 individuals were in isolation and 1,815 individuals were in quarantine at Coyote Ridge.
Inmates who are symptomatic are in isolation and are assessed three times a day, while all inmates in the medium security complex are assessed by nursing staff once a day.