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Federal prison on Tucson's southeast side COVID-19 hot spot

Federal prison on Tucson's southeast side COVID-19 hot spot

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry is calling for comprehensive testing of the prison’s staff. Until last week, he says, the prison complex was not offering on-site testing.

The federal prison complex on Tucson’s southeast side has become a COVID-19 hot spot, and widespread testing is urgently needed to prevent hundreds of employees from spreading the disease beyond the prison gates, a report to the Pima County Board of Supervisors said.

To date, about 500 of 1,300 inmates at the facility at 8901 S. Wilmot Road have been infected with coronavirus, and until last week, the prison was not offering on-site testing for its 600 or so employees, said the report from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

Rather, employees who wanted to be tested were directed to see their doctor or seek out a free clinic. Relatively few did so — only about one-quarter of the workforce, the Nov. 17 report said.

“We believe the facility needs to provide comprehensive COVID-19 testing for all staff,” it said.

In the meantime, the County Health Department, with the blessing of the federal Bureau of Prisons, is sending mobile testing units to the prison.

More than 90 employees were tested on site and the mobile unit will be back Tuesday for another session, said an email from the county’s epidemiological team, which is helping prison officials address the situation.

Huckelberry’s report said such testing “is critical to protecting both the detainees and the larger community.” The Health Department has asked for a list of all prison employees and will be cross-checking the names with the county’s coronavirus contact-tracing database, it said.

The report also said some prison employees have been careless about wearing masks and other protective items when transporting prisoners or handling them in a hospital setting.

About two-dozen infected prisoners were sick enough to go a hospital for admission or evaluation, and during that time “significant lapses in basic mask and PPE use have been noted among correctional staff,” the report said.

Bureau of Prisons spokesman Justin Long said the facility has adopted numerous precautions since the pandemic began, including temperature checks, limiting prisoner transfers and suspending in-person visitation.

“We cannot require that staff members be tested for COVID-19,” although they are “highly encouraged,” to do so, Long said in an email from agency headquarters in Virginia.

Prison officials are closely monitoring the situation, he said.

“We are deeply concerned for the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families and the communities we live and work in,” Long said.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or calaimo@tucson.com. On Twitter: @StarHigherEd


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