Prisons in Farmington and Vandalia both experienced a dramatic increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases over the weekend.
At the Farmington Correctional Center, the Missouri Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 data website showed as of Wednesday there were 240 active offender cases and 18 active cases among staff.
That represented a substantial increase from numbers reported on Friday, when the department said Farmington had 25 inmates who were infected and 15 staff employees.
A total of 304 have tested positive since the pandemic began.
The number of Farmington inmates who have recovered from the illness was 64 on Wednesday, unchanged from Friday’s total.
The Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia reported 180 active offender cases Wednesday and two active staff cases.
As of Friday, there were eight active offender cases at the lock-up, and one active case among staff, according to the Department of Corrections.
On Friday, there were 12 offenders who had recovered; on Wednesday, 14 offenders had recovered, according to the department.
At the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (ERDCC) in Bonne Terre, there have been a total of 333 cases since the pandemic, which is the highest number among Missouri prisons. Currently, there are 20 staff with active cases and 85 offenders with active cases.
Karen Pojmann, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said in an email that that Missouri is one of the top COVID-19 hot spots in the country.
She cited a Sunday article in the New York Times that said North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri and Iowa “had added more recent cases per capita than all other states.”
“Unfortunately, what’s happening in the community also affects our facilities,” she said.
Pojmann said “an outbreak has occurred in a particular housing unit at Farmington Correctional Center, affecting about 10% of the population.”
But, she said the department was “confident” in its ability to contain the virus.
“We’re confident that our viral containment strategy will help contain the spread of the virus and prevent a large-scale outbreak throughout the facility,” she said.
Pojmann said the strategy is to limit contact between staff and residents.
“Residents interact only with fellow residents of their own housing units and avoid contact with residents of other housing units, moving together to dining halls, recreation, etc,” she said. “If an outbreak occurs, we are then able to quickly isolate it and prevent further spread throughout the facility.”
John Ammann, a law professor emeritus at the St. Louis University School of Law, lacked confidence in the department's approach so far, saying he was worried about lax mask rules and spreading of the virus through transfer of corrections officers from one facility to another because of staffing shortages.
“We're very concerned at the initial spread, but these spikes are very concerning for our clients, many of whom are elderly and have underlying conditions,” said John Ammann, professor emeritus at the St. Louis University School of Law, who said he represents one client at Farmington and two at Vandalia.
He said the Department of Corrections has had “a very disorganized approach to controlling the virus.”
Pojmann said the Department of Corrections was engaging in continued testing efforts.
“We’re testing five facilities per week, and we’re also testing offenders and staff at our reception and diagnostic centers every week,“ she said. “In addition to intake testing, we’re doing weekly pre-transfer testing for those who need to be relocated to avoid overcrowding.“
In August, Pojmann said the state requires use of N95 masks and personal protective equipment in isolation units and when interacting with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Pojmann said masks also are required in many areas of prisons, including the front entrance and infirmary.