By Caroline Sellers
A Hot Spring County correctional facility known as the Ouachita River Unit recorded 1,560 total positive COVID-19 cases among inmates, one of the highest rates of the virus in the state’s prison system over the past year, Arkansas Department of Health records show.
The Ouachita River Unit is among two other correctional facilities that have surpassed 1,000 total positive cases for inmates. Cummins State Prison in Lincoln County recorded 1,147 total positive cases for inmates and the Wrightsville Unit in Pulaski County recorded 1,054 total positive cases for inmates, according to ADH bi-weekly reports on COVID in the prisons.
Overall, the state Health Department reported 57 deaths among inmates or residents in these facilities as well as 10 staff member deaths as of March 8. The risk of COVID-19 contamination is high in prisons due to a crowded environment that can impede the possibility of social distancing.
Cindy Murphy, communications director for the Arkansas Department of Corrections said the DOC implemented “one of the most robust correctional testing programs in the nation.” She said that since October, all Corrections Department facilities have implemented a surveillance testing program that requires all facility staff to be tested weekly.Murphy also said that as of Feb. 23, over 59,000 COVID-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction tests have been administered to their offender population. Visitation is also currently suspended at all units, Murphy said.
“The Department has also invested over $4.4 million in expenditures related to responding to the pandemic within our facilities,” Murphy said.
As of Feb. 23, the Department of Corrections has over 10,900 inmates and residents who have successfully recovered from the virus, Murphy said.
“The past several months have obviously been very challenging. Our case counts and outcomes have improved thanks to our dedicated staff; in addition to our strong partnership with Wellpath, our contract medical provider, and the Department of Health.” Murphy said.
The facilities’ staff has also started receiving the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. More than 1,250 DOC and Wellpath employees have received at least the first dose, Murphy said.