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Federal prison didn't isolate inmates who tested positive for coronavirus, report finds

A federal prison in Louisiana that became an early hotspot for coronavirus failed to isolate inmates who tested positive for coronavirus and did not inform staff who were interacting with sick inmates, according to a new report from the Justice Department's inspector general. The report said FCI Oakdale did not comply with federal health guidance from the Bureau of Prisons and CDC. 

The watchdog said Oakdale officials did not isolate nearly 100 asymptomatic inmates who tested positive for the virus, permitting them to continue using showers, telephones and other common areas on a staggered schedule. Some inmates who tested positive were left in their housing units for up to six days without being isolated, the report said, and staff who supervised these inmates were not given proper personal protective equipment.

Investigators also refuted claims by the prison's executive staff, who said employees were always sufficiently equipped with proper PPE. In mid to late March, staff either did not have access or "understand the necessity" of using proper PPE while interacting with positive inmates.

The report said concerns about access to PPE was "so dire" after the first inmate tested positive on March 21 that PPE supplies "were being taken from the complex medical unit after hours and without permission." While surgical masks were distributed to staff and inmates in late March, the virus had already begun "spreading rapidly" throughout the prison. The outbreaks also caused staffing shortages at Oakdale, forcing some staffers to work up to 40 hours straight.

"Oakdale staff told us that institution management failed to adequately communicate and engage with them at the beginning of the outbreak, which created an environment in which staff believed that management was not concerned for their well-being," the report said.

In April, an Oakdale employee told CBS News that the facility was not prepared for the influx of cases. "It's just something you never thought would have happened when it started happening. It was taken very lightly. Then when we started sending inmates out, then it became very serious."

Through contact tracing, the report found that the first four inmates who tested positive were taught by a teacher who wasn't screened after traveling to New York in early March when the state accounted for about a quarter of the country's coronavirus cases. The first reported inmate to die from the virus was 49-year-old Patrick Jones, according to the Bureau of Prisons. The inspector general's report said he worked as the teacher's assistant.

The teacher, the report said, was told by his supervisor that he did not need to quarantine because New York "was not yet listed on the CDC's travel advisory list," which the bureau used to determine which areas were considered high-risk.

However, Oakdale officials said it is impossible to link the prison's outbreak to this one example, telling investigators, "it was not possible to determine the origins of the infection for the teacher or inmates who attended classes" in its education department.

According to the bureau, 140 inmates and two staff members have died from COVID-19 across the federal prison system.

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