North Carolina coronavirus outbreak means prisoner and staffing shifts

Published 7:20 am Tuesday, April 21, 2020

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By GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press

A large COVID-19 outbreak at an eastern North Carolina prison has led officials to shutter a nearby facility and transfer its offenders elsewhere so guards can help relieve staff at the beleaguered Neuse Correctional Institution.

Officers from the Johnston Correctional Institution should start working in coming days at Neuse, where now more than 330 of the 700 offenders and about a dozen of its 250 employees are infected with the virus, the Division of Prisons said Monday.

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Almost 200 test results from Neuse were pending. Mass testing was conducted after the first two offenders at Neuse, where prisoners live in dormitories, tested positive earlier this month.

“The staff at Neuse have been working in the toughest conditions, for weeks on end, and desperately needed support,” state Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee said in a release. Ninety-eight percent of those testing positive at Neuse are asymptomatic, the division said, and none have died.

Operations at the Johnston prison, located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Neuse, are suspended temporarily. The prison’s 600 offenders were sent, primarily on Saturday, to facilities in Troy and Morganton, where they are under quarantine following medical screenings. The prisoner shift also required the transfer of about 100 offenders at the Troy prison to one in Columbus County.

The Neuse prison also received shipments of personal protective gear and building disinfectant machines over the weekend, the division said. The state prison system has banned visitations and the receipt of prisoners from county jails. Some nonviolent offenders are being allowed to leave prison early and complete their sentence under community supervision.

State Department of Health and Human Services data showed more than 6,750 positive COVID-19 cases in North Carolina as of Monday morning, or an increase of 270 compared to Sunday. There have been 179 related deaths overall, and about 375 people testing positive are hospitalized currently. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause severe illness such as pneumonia, or even death.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and DHHS are emphasizing ramp-ups in testing and tracing people in contact with sick residents while deciding if the state’s economy can reopen and movement restrictions are loosened. Cooper’s statewide stay-at-home order expires April 29. Governors in Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina announced plans Monday to begin easing economic restrictions.

People who don’t think Cooper is moving fast enough plan to gather in front of the Executive Mansion on Tuesday. The demonstration could test the limits of the orders by Cooper and a similar one in Wake County.

Ashley Smith, a co-founder of the ReopenNC group, said on Monday that hundreds of people expected to participate will practice social distancing. U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, a Charlotte Republican, and a GOP state senator also are expected to attended.

One person at a ReopenNC rally last week was arrested after Raleigh police warned the crowd multiple times that they were violating Cooper’s order. The order, however, doesn’t prevent them from petitioning the governor, Smith said.

“Our constitutional right is not displaceable and it cannot be violated by any executive order,” said Smith, who with her husband operates a payment processing firm in Morganton for businesses. The group, which lists 62,000 members on its Facebook page, is formed on the premise that “this shutdown isn’t sustainable economically,” Smith added.

Responding to a letter from an attorney for ReopenNC seeking guidelines to demonstrate lawfully, Cooper attorney William McKinney wrote on Monday that the governor’s executive order allows outdoor protests to continue.

But the protesters can’t gather in enclosed space and individuals must remain at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart unless they are from the same household, McKinney wrote. It appears many participants in last week’s rally didn’t do that, he added, causing police to intervene.



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