By JONATHAN MATTISE Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee corrections officials are looking into whether to test all state inmates for the new coronavirus after positive tests have come back for staffers and inmates, a Department of Correction spokeswoman said Tuesday.
On Friday, the department mass tested 1,145 workers at Northwest Correctional Complex and Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, finding that 13 department staff and six contract workers tested positive after showing no symptoms at the time of testing. The widespread testing came in reaction to six workers previously testing positive at the facilities.
The department's website says five inmates have tested positive, including confirmed cases at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center and Turney Center Industrial Complex. As of Tuesday, only 55 state inmates had been tested, the department said.
That's out of a pool of more than 21,700 state inmates in adult facilities as of February. Tennessee has 14 state prisons, including four run by the private prison company CoreCivic.
A total of more than 78,800 people in Tennessee have been tested for COVID-19 so far.
"In conjunction with the Department of Health, we are evaluating the process of testing all inmates," Department of Correction spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said in an email Tuesday.
Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday that the state will look at expanded prison testing "at the right time," adding that the state will likely first expand testing of the elderly in long-term care facilities.
"We are looking at populations that we should consider expanding that testing into, and prisons will be one we look at," Lee told reporters. "But the population we're looking most closely at are the elderly, those in assisted living and nursing homes."
Carter said the department already has protocols in place to address illnesses in prisons, including isolation or treatment at facility infirmaries or outside hospitals.
Workers who tested positive were told to self-isolate for 14 days. The department says it is tracing who came in contact with those who tested positive, and staff and inmates have received cloth masks.
An inmate at the Turney Center Industrial Complex-Annex, for one, had a low-grade fever last week and was placed in quarantine, taken to the hospital and then tested positive. Three inmates who may have been exposed are in quarantine for 14 days and did not have symptoms as of a Friday update.
Inmates have been quarantined on other occasions when they may have been exposed to someone who tested positive.
Last month, a group led by former Davidson County public defender Dawn Deaner asked the state Supreme Court to order the release of a number of prisoners to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
The department's website says there are "no plans for early release from TDOC prisons at this time because of the coronavirus."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, meanwhile, wrote to the governor early this month requesting regular updates on rates of infection and testing in state prisons and juvenile detention facilities.
The economic blow of the COVID-19 pandemic continued to grow Tuesday, with Dolly Parton's Dollywood theme park saying it is going into "hibernation mode."
That means only minimal staff will keep working, and those workers face up to a 50% salary reduction. The rest will be furloughed. The company pledged to pay 100% of premiums on workers' company health plans for the next few months.
The state on Tuesday also sent out the first installment of $600 in federal coronavirus unemployment payments to 110,000 approved claimants.
The Veterans Administration's Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, however, is looking to staff up.
The system is offering both temporary and permanent assignments, according to a news release. It is also recruiting recent retirees with experience in high-need areas, with the possibility of dual compensation waivers that allow retirees to receive annuities while receiving full compensation.
In addition, Tennessee Valley Healthcare System is seeking nurse practitioners and registered nurses for 120-day appointments with the Travel Nurse Corps, a VA-operated internal pool of nurses available for temporary short-term assignments throughout the country.
As of Tuesday, state officials said Tennessee had more than 5,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 124 deaths.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in a few weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including life-threatening pneumonia.