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102 inmates test positive at HCC

HUTTONSVILLE — The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates at Huttonsville Correctional Center rose to 102 Wednesday, as Gov. Jim Justice said testing will expand to correctional facilities across the state.

During Justice’s 10:30 a.m. coronavirus briefing he announced 83 positive cases had been found at HCC, but by 3 p.m. that number jumped to 102 after more results came in. According to information provided by the W.Va. Division of Corrections, a total of 1,073 inmates have been tested, with 102 positive results, 608 negative results, and 363 tests still pending. There are 898 inmates in quarantine at HCC. A total of eight employees at the facility have tested positive.

“We didn’t have a single test in all of our correctional facilities that tested positive up until, all of a sudden, a few days ago,” Justice said Wednesday. “All I want to do is make the right decisions and when it came to me that we were testing a block of the prison and testing all the staff that worked with those prisoners that were exposed to one another in the block. I said, ‘no no no no, it’s not enough. We’re going to test the whole facility.’ … So we jumped on it and we took off and tested everybody in the facility.”

Justice said he would order that all inmates and staff at all correctional facilities in the state be tested for COVID-19.

“As we continue to expand our testing capabilities, we should test every single inmate and every single staff person at all of our facilities,” Justice said. “We should move in that direction as quickly as the testing capabilities will allow us to do so.

“Now that we do see in one of correctional facilities just how fast this thing can spread, that (testing everyone at all the facilities) is what we ought to do because there very well could be asymptomatic people in the other facilities. The likelihood is very strong.”

Justice said by testing everyone at HCC helped identify those who are infected and asymptomatic.

“A great part about that is we can … tell them, and isolate them and contact trace them and all the different stuff that goes on,” Justice said.

The governor said many other states have had a “really bad go of it” with prisons. He said the confines of the prisons and the inmates being in close proximity means more people can be exposed.

“I hope and pray what we are doing is the right thing and it was the expedient thing and at the end of the day it will protect these people,” Justice said. “I’ve said over and over they deserve to be protected just as much as I deserve or all the rest of us deserves. We want to do the right thing and I hope and pray that we’re on it, we were on it very quickly.”

Betsy Jividen, commissioner of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, also spoke during the Wednesday morning briefing.

“All the positives have been moved and separated and we continue to move inmates and separate inmates as the additional results come in,” she said. “We’re going to continue responding to this based upon the results of this enhanced testing and in coordination with the medical teams and the experts.”

Jividen said the the DCR have been proactively responding to the pandemic since March 3.

“We immediately put staff and inmate screenings into place on our facilities,” she said. “Inmates who come into the regional jails are quarantined for 14 days before they are allowed to go into general population.”

Jividen said the DCR has been following the CDC guidelines. She said the prison system was testing any inmates that showed symptoms by medical providers at the facilities.

“They had been the ones that have been determining who gets tested and who doesn’t, up until the incident at Huttonsville, which … was caught through our procedures that have been in place since early March.”

She said the DCR has put enhanced cleaning procedures in place; curtailed movement and visitation; taken all volunteers out of the facilities; issued masks to all inmates and staff in early April to help fight the pandemic.

“We have put into place a number of preventive and precautionary measures,” she said. “I think the dedication and experience of our leadership that we have our facilities and throughout the DCR is a testament to them because he have had good results. We have had no problems up until Huttonsville and as everyone knows we are dealing with that.”

During the briefing concerns were raised about whether staff had adequate access to personal protective equipment in the correctional system. Jividen said a staff member at Huttonsville filed a complaint about not being issued an N95 mask.

“That officer left the facility before being told by the superintendent that he was in fact moving people around so that people in her particular job category would not be having contact with inmates,” Jividen said. “Without having specifics, I can’t address it any further, but I can tell you we’re taking every precaution to protect our staff.”

The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation purchased 100,000 NIOSH-approved N95 masks in March with 9,000 masks going to the state’s correctional system. Half of the 100,000 N95 masks turned out to be a cheaper version, the KN95 mask not approved by NIOSH that used ear loops instead of head bands, causing the masks to not properly seal. An investigation by the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety determined the masks were not counterfeit.

The Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval for the KN95 masks to be used when other masks are not available. The West Virginia National Guard is now taking some of the KN95 masks to West Virginia University to test how effective they are at protecting against contracting the virus.

Also on Wednesday, Delegate Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, released an open letter to Justice sharing concerns about the situation at HCC.

“I would encourage your administration and the Division of Corrections to recognize the severity of the situation and do all in your power to protect our correctional officers and other employees from the risk of spread of this deadly virus,” Thompson wrote in the letter. “In addition to testing all inmates and employees at Huttonsville, all inmates and employees at the Tygart Valley Regional Jail should be tested immediately to slow the spread of this virus in our correctional facilities.”

He said it is very important that correctional employees around the state be provided with “adequate, effective PPE to wear during their workday.”

“The employees working in our state correctional facilities are taking great risks to do their jobs. I want to encourage the state to do all that we can to protect them when they go to work every day,” Thompson said. “I want to ensure that our state correctional center employees are equipped with necessary PPE and that all appropriate precautionary measures are in place in our correctional facilities to protect these workers and their families.”

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