State prison confirms first positive COVID case; inmate was asymptomatic

(Nevada Department of Corrections photo)
(Nevada Department of Corrections photo)

The Nevada Department of Corrections confirmed Wednesday a person housed at High Desert State Prison tested positive for COVID-19, the first reported case among inmates.

The department released a statement about the case and announced a plan to test more inmates shortly after the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on the first positive case. 

“Now that we have a confirmed offender case, our next goal is mitigating and preventing the spread of the virus,” said Department of Corrections Director Charles Daniels in a statement.

According to the department, the inmate arrived at High Desert State Prison April 22. The positive test result was confirmed May 18 after he was taken to a local hospital for unrelated care. He was asymptomatic. 

At an April 29 Nevada Sentencing Commission meeting, Dr. Michael Minev, the department’s medical director, said inmates self-report any ailments, or prison medical staff look for any potential symptoms related to COVID-19 before a test is administered. 

Because the virus spreads despite people being symptomatic, members of the Nevada Sentencing Commission urged corrections officials to implement mass testing to ensure more inmates weren’t sick. Other corrections facilities across the country have found positive cases — all who were asymptomatic — among prison populations once mass testing is begun.

All people in the same housing unit as the positive case have since been tested for COVID-19, but the statement didn’t specify how many inmates that includes.

The department also announced Wednesday it is working with the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services and the State Public Health Laboratory to develop a comprehensive testing plan for offenders at all corrections facilities. It didn’t provide a timeline for when that plan would be implemented. 

“This is a moment we feared but expected,” said ACLU of Nevada Legal Director Sherrie Royster. “NDOC has announced that its next goal is mitigating and preventing the spread of the virus, and we are perplexed because that should have been NDOC’s primary focus all along. We will continue to monitor NDOC’s response to this virus and will explore all options to ensure that proper steps are taken to protect people who are incarcerated from COVID-19.”

At the sentencing commission meeting, Daniels confirmed 39 out of more than 12,000 inmates had been tested. At an April 13 meeting, Daniels said zero had been tested, but later acknowledged that was an error

Nevada Current asked the department Wednesday how many inmates have since been tested, but they hadn’t responded at the time of publication. The Review-Journal reported as of May 11, the department had tested 56 inmates. 

Civil rights groups, criminal justice reform advocates and attorneys have called for the reduction of the prison population — inmates who are close to finishing their sentences, there on nonviolent crimes or those who are medically vulnerable —  to prevent any potential outbreak. The department has been reluctant. 

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.