All but a handful of the more than 2,600 Tennessee inmates who tested positive for the coronavirus have since recovered, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Correction.
But four new cases — including one hospitalization — at the Northwest Correctional Complex have prompted another round of mass testing. All inmates and staff at the Tiptonville prison who initially tested negative will be retested this week.
State health commissioner Lisa Piercey says that will happen whenever unrelated cases start to pop in correctional facilities.
“It would not surprise me if we had to do that at another one of the prison facilities, because the risk factors really haven’t changed much,” she says. “Staff are still coming and going into the community, and they’re still in a congregate care setting, where they could be at high risk for very quick transmission.”
Piercey says mass testing won’t happen each time new cases are detected, especially if they’re isolated within a certain living unit. But if community transmission is detected — meaning that the virus is spreading in different parts of the facility — there will be a sweeping response.
Gov. Bill Lee announced on May 1 that all inmates and employees at state prisons would be tested for COVID-19 after more than 1,300 prisoners and staff tested positive at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center. Most facilities reported only a few of cases. But others, like Northwest, confirmed hundreds of positive tests.
A WPLN News investigation found that at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, which reported over 600 cases among its inmates and staff, prisoners who tested positive were locked in cells with roommates who tested negative, as long as they weren’t showing symptoms.
A TDOC spokesperson said at the time that cellmates who tested negative were “presumed positive,” because they had been exposed to the virus for an extended period of time. But they were not included in the official case counts.
Health commissioner says mass testing threshold is also low for nursing homes
The health commissioner says the same logic will be applied for testing in nursing homes and other facilities where large groups of vulnerable individuals are living together. The Lee administration had set a goal of testing everyone in the state’s 700 long-term care facilities by the end of this month.
Piercey says about 60% of those tests have either been completed or scheduled. Officials are giving other nursing homes a grace period, while they coordinate with the Tennessee National Guard to provide additional personnel. The state hopes to have the testing finished within the next few weeks.
And even after the mass testing is done, Piercey says employees will be retested on a regular basis, to ensure they’re not bringing the virus into the building. She says the state has also allocated more than $350,000 to improve the quality of care in nursing homes during the pandemic, through virtual programming and telehealth.