State launches coronavirus testing program at correctional facilities

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424 inmates and seven staff recently tested positive for the coronavirus at the Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City. (Nevada Department of Corrections photo)
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470 of 525 inmates at the Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City tested positive for the coronavirus. (Nevada Department of Corrections photo)

The Department of Health and Human Service announced Friday it’s using $10 million of coronavirus relief funds to contract with Quest Diagnostics to provide testing in Nevada prisons.

The announcement follows an alarming rise in positive Covid cases within the Nevada Department of Corrections.

Data from the Department of Health and Human Services showed that at the end of October, there had been 187 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among inmates and staff at correctional facilities.

The number is up to 884 according to data from Thursday.

In a late evening release Nov. 13, the department reported 424 out of 525 inmates at Warm Springs Correctional Center tested positive for Covid, which has since increased to 470.

The joint release from Health and Human Services and the Department Corrections on Friday also reported that of the 95 inmates tested at the Humboldt Conservation Camp in Winnemucca, 79 have tested positive. Of the 11 staff, six have the coronavirus.

The announcement also comes a day after the ACLU of Nevada, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and Return Strong, which represents families of those incarcerated, held a virtual press conference to share their fears about the drastic increases in correctional facilities and urged Gov. Steve Sisolak to release people convicted on nonviolent offenses and who are less than six months from finishing their sentences.

Families and activists alike have been frustrated that state officials, including Sisolak, have been mostly silent about the outbreak at correctional facilities.

The Nevada Current sent an email to the governor’s office Thursday asking if he was considering the groups’ requests. He didn’t answer.

A statement issued Friday by the governor’s office said the governor “remains deeply concerned about the increased spread of COVID-19 in our communities, and that includes spread from the communities making its way into vulnerable populations, like those in correctional facilities and skilled nursing homes.”

The statement acknowledged the newly announced testing contract “to help increase testing turnaround time.”

The HHS release noted the testing contract is designed to relive some of the burden on the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory, “where NDOC testing currently accounts for 26 percent of the total number of tests.”

But it’s not just testing that families, legal groups and criminal justice advocates are worried about.

At the Advisory Commission for the Administration of Justice meeting Nov. 12, just a day before the department announced a massive increase in positive cases, families begged lawmakers to act.

Many shared stories from brief phone calls of loved ones housed at Warm Springs Correctional Center and worried inmates weren’t getting food in a timely manner or able to access showers and time to leave their cells.

During Thursday’s press conference, families noted being confined for prolonged periods of time can take a physical and mental toll on people.

“They are treating them like animals and not like they are people,” one woman said.

The release Friday said “each unit is rotated through for a 30-minute shower and phone break, resulting in an average of three to four opportunities to call home and shower each week.”

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.