UPDATE (4:34 p.m. PT) — An inmate at the Oregon State Penitentiary who tested positive for COVID-19 died Wednesday evening, according to the Department of Corrections.
It’s the first COVID-19 related death connected to the state’s prison system.
The unidentified inmate was between 50 and 60 years old and one of three with the disease who have been hospitalized, DOC said in a statement. Next of kin have been notified. Two other inmates remain hospitalized.
The Oregon State Police will investigate the death and the state medical examiner will determine the cause.
Inmates are at greater risk for contracting the disease because it’s difficult to create enough social distance in prisons, jails and detention centers to slow the spread of COVID-19. Some of the largest outbreaks in the country have been in correctional institutions.
As of Thursday, Oregon DOC said there were 148 inmates who have tested positive for the disease, as well as 38 employees. The agency houses more than 14,000 inmates across 14 institutions.
Last month, Gov. Kate Brown said she wouldn’t release inmates in large groups over risks surrounding the disease. Rather, she said, she would evaluate early releases on a case-by-case basis.
The death comes as the DOC and Brown are being sued for their response to the pandemic inside the state’s prisons. Inmates in several institutions allege not enough has been done to slow the disease.
Among other things, the suit asks a judge to mandate a social distance of 6 feet or more between inmates in all of the DOC’s facilities. If that can’t be accomplished, the lawsuits ask that a three-judge panel review cases and reduce the number of prisoners in Oregon prisons so it is possible.
The Oregon Justice Resource Center, which is suing the DOC and Brown, said the death underscores the risks COVID-19 poses to staff and inmates.
“There is an urgent and clear need for a comprehensive program of prevention, testing, and care to be implemented throughout Oregon’s prisons,” OJRC’s Juan Chavez said in a statement. “Governor Brown must no longer ignore the reality that prisons are not built to withstand a global pandemic and act on the knowledge she has of the risk of harm that exists for all those who work and live in the prisons.”
DOC has set up medical isolation units for patients with COVID-19 at the Coffee Creek Correctional Institution and the Snake River Correctional Institution, where there’s 24/7 nursing care.
This week, DOC started antibody testing, but have not yet received results.
“Antibody testing will help us quantify the breadth and scope of COVID at our institutions with positive tests,” DOC said in a statement. “For example, we will offering antibody testing to all (inmates) at Shutter Creek. This will allow us to identify those now presumptively immune.”