Tuesday, October 20, 2020

New database shows coronavirus infection clusters in a dozen rural jails in the Mountain West

"The Mountain West, which for months avoided the worst of the pandemic, has rapidly devolved into one of the most alarming hot spots in a country that recorded its eight millionth confirmed case on Thursday, a day when more than 65,000 cases were announced nationwide, the most in a single day since July," Lucy Tompkins, Maura Turcotte and Libby Seline report for The New York Times. "Seventeen states, including many in the Mountain West, have added more cases in the past week than any other week of the pandemic. And the spread through sparsely populated areas of rural America has created problems in small towns that lack critical resources — including doctors — even in ordinary times."

Prisons and jails, often overcrowded and unsanitary, have been a major driver of coronavirus spread in many parts of the country. "Nationally, jails and prisons have seen disproportionate rates of infection and death, with a mortality rate twice as high as in the general population and an infection rate more than four times as high, according to recent data," the Times reports. "A New York Times database has tracked clusters of at least 50 coronavirus cases in a dozen rural jails in Montana, Idaho, Utah and New Mexico during the pandemic. Among them: the Purgatory Correctional Center in Hurricane, Utah, with 166 infections; the jail in Twin Falls, Idaho, with 279; and, in New Mexico, the Cibola County Correctional Center, which has reported 357 cases."

A recent coronavirus surge at the Cascade County Detention Center in Great Falls, Montana, illustrates how quickly infections can spread among incarcerated populations and the community beyond. "More than 300 inmates and staff members have been infected in a facility meant to hold 365 people, the county’s first major outbreak in a region where the virus is suddenly surging," the Times reports. "Infections at the jail make up about a quarter of all known virus cases in the county. Health authorities say that the jail’s outbreak, which began in mid-August, was not believed to be the main cause of the community’s recent surge, but that it had led to some cases." The jail's medical director told the Times that the jail had released 29 people who were considered actively infected within the past two months.

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