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Prison employee is first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Oregon Department of Corrections

Prison employee is first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Oregon Department of Corrections

By Noelle Crombie,


The Oregon Department of Corrections on Wednesday announced that an employee at the state penitentiary in Salem has tested positive for coronavirus.

The agency said the person is the first in the prison system to test positive for the illness. So far, no inmate has tested positive for coronavirus.

“We have been preparing for this day for the last several weeks,” said agency director Colette Peters and deputy director Heidi Steward in a message to more than 4,500 employees. “Our thoughts go out to this employee and their family.”

The agency declined to provide the person’s position or any demographic information. People who have been in “close contact” with the person have been notified. The person has not been at work for 13 days, according to a source briefed on the situation but not authorized to speak on the agency’s behalf.

Social distancing poses a challenge in prisons and jails, where people live in close quarters and, studies show, the population in general tends to be sicker. Oregon is also home to an aging prison population; the prison system houses among the highest percentages of prisoners in the country, according to a 2018 study by Pew Charitable Trusts.

The prison system has opened medical wards to triage inmates with symptoms of respiratory illness and will ramp up coronavirus testing as tests have become more available, the agency’s chief medical officer said this week.

Dr. Christopher DiGiulio, chief of medicine for the Department of Corrections, said medical staff have identified the systems most medically vulnerable inmates and placed them in single cells “if at all possible” and a newly formed “hygiene committee” is going to “each and every unit” to provide basic information on how people can protect themselves from the disease.

He said routine medical visits to prison health clinics are on hold so the agency can conserve personal protective equipment and practice social distancing “just like what is happening in the community.”

DiGiulio said on Monday that the agency’s testing practices have “evolved” as more tests become available statewide and that testing activity is “changing very quickly” in the state’s prisons due to greater testing capacity.

He said the Oregon Health Authority and the state’s lab have told the corrections agency that “there are no limitations or restrictions anymore on our ability to test our own patients.”

He said medical staff at each prison assess patients’ symptoms and tests are carried out by registered nurses who work in the prisons.

Today, if inmates fall within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for testing, “we are testing them,” he said.

DiGiulio said each prison now has a respiratory triage clinic for people with symptoms.

If someone in custody develops the virus, DiGuilio said the person will be isolated. People awaiting tests results are also held in “respiratory isolation conditions,” he said.

“We have been preparing for weeks to separate the vulnerable, the ill, from everyone else,” he said.

If someone in custody contracts the disease, they’ll be treated in prison provided the person is stable and doesn’t need a higher level of medical care, he said.

— Noelle Crombie;

About oregoncureadmin

The mission of OREGON CURE is to reduce crime by advocating for effective criminal justice policies, procedures and programs.


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