Inmate deaths connected to COVID-19 rise sharply in Missouri
O'FALLON, Mo. (AP) - Missouri prisons have seen a surge of inmate deaths connected to the coronavirus this month, prompting civil rights leaders to urge additional steps to protect prisoners and staff.
Meanwhile, an IT issue is blamed for data on inmate and staff cases and deaths disappearing from the Missouri Department of Corrections website. Spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said Tuesday that the state was upgrading to a new system when officials discovered the data wasn't exporting. It isn't clear when it will be fixed.
During the first few months of the pandemic, confirmed coronavirus cases were common but mostly mild among Missouri prisoners. Through August, the state had reported just one inmate death.
But Pojmann said 26 additional inmates infected with COVID-19 have died since September, most of them this month. She said the deaths have occurred at 11 of the 18 prisons for men. No female prisoners with COVID-19 have died.
In most cases, it isn't certain that COVID-19 was the primary cause of death, Pojmann said. All but two of the victims had serious underlying conditions such as late-stage renal failure, heart disease or cancer, she said. Most were older than 60.
Four corrections department employees have died - three prison workers and one person who worked at the office in Jefferson City.
Pojmann said up to 4,500 inmates have been infected, including 758 active cases. Among staff, 254 workers currently have the virus among up to 1,800 infected since the pandemic began. She said the exact numbers of total infections is hard to determine because some cases may have been counted twice.
The Missouri NAACP and several other organizations are calling on Gov. Mike Parson to take steps to further protect inmates. State NAACP President Nimrod Chapel Jr. compared prisons to nursing homes in that the confined populations largely become infected through contact with staff.
"If you're going into these institutions just like a nursing home, you need to wear mask," Chapel said. "It's only coming in from the outside, ostensibly."
Pojmann said the state already requires masks for staff, a policy implemented statewide in July. She cited other measures, including isolating all inmates who test positive or show symptoms, and isolating their close contacts such as cellmates.
The state on Tuesday reported 3,764 new confirmed cases, bringing the total number to 278,661 since the onset of the pandemic. The state also reported 189 new deaths, saying 161 of them occurred previously but had not been reported. Still, 147 of those previously unreported deaths occurred this month.
Hospital capacity remains a major concern. The state's COVID-19 dashboard says ICU capacity statewide remained at 17% for the second straight day.
Some political leaders worry that Thanksgiving gatherings will cause new outbreaks and are urging people to keep their celebrations small. Gov. Mike Parson is not among them.
"The holidays are coming, and as the Governor of the State of Missouri, I am not going to mandate who goes in the front door of your home," the Republican governor wrote on Twitter. "Government has no business going through the front door of your homes to decide how many members of your family are there, how many are not."