All inmates and staff at Tennessee prisons will be tested for COVID-19 starting next week after 1,299 inmates and 50 staff tested positive at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville. It’s the largest known outbreak at a single facility in the entire state.
The private prison, which is owned by CoreCivic, conducted mass testing this week, with help from the Tennessee National Guard and the Tennessee Department of Correction, after 93 inmates and 12 employees tested positive.
The state has declined multiple calls to test all inmates. Instead, officials have taken a “tiered approach” — first screening individuals who report symptoms and then scaling up testing if there’s a suspected outbreak.
Now, more than 20,000 state prisoners and employees will be tested for the virus.
“Knowing the extent of the virus’s spread within our correctional facilities is critical as incarcerated individuals remain one of the most vulnerable populations during this pandemic,” Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement. “Thanks to our increased capacity, we’ll test all inmates and staff statewide in order to take appropriate actions to safeguard the health of these vulnerable individuals.”
The state’s Unified Command Group will coordinate with the state Department of Correction, Department of Health and the Tennessee National Guard, along with TDOC’s healthcare and contract providers to conduct mass testing at the 10 prisons managed by the state. CoreCivic will be responsible for testing its own inmates, but will receive supplies and extra staffing from the Tennessee National Guard.
Trousdale Turner is only the second prison in the state to test all of its prisoners. Bledsoe County Correctional Complex tested all 2,322 of its inmates last month, and 583 inmates were positive.
The next-largest outbreaks are at the Turney Center Industrial Complex, which has reported 40 cases on its two campuses, and the Northwest Correctional Complex, where 40 inmates have also tested positive.
The Morgan County Correctional Complex has still not tested a single prisoner, and the rest of the state’s correctional facilities have only tested a handful of inmates.
Both the Department of Correction and CoreCivic have said in press releases that the majority of inmates who tested positive at the prisons with the two largest outbreaks were asymptomatic when screened. However, the Centers for Disease Control reports that individuals who didn’t initially seem sick can start showing symptoms several days after testing positive for the virus.
Because most prisons have only tested inmates who complained of symptoms up to this point, the scope of spread within the state’s correctional facilities could be much larger than is currently known.
This post was updated at 2:48 with new numbers from CoreCivic.