Nebraska prison system reports outbreak as COVID cases surge

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska officials are dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak at a state correctional facility as virus cases surge statewide.

After 33 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln, officials paused all visits and volunteer activities there and asked county jails to delay sending new inmates if they can. All adult men who enter the state prison system go through the facility.

Officials said all inmates who test positive for the virus are being housed away from other inmates to limit the spread of COVID-19, according to the Omaha World-Herald. The state Department of Correctional Services has also started providing bars of soap, which inmates had to purchase before the pandemic, and masks to inmates who request them. Officials say they have also stepped up efforts to disinfect spaces where people live and congregate in prisons.

Department Director Scott Frakes said the increase in cases in the prison system — which lists 36 active cases — follows an increase in the community.

“It is not a surprise that we have an uptick in cases now, especially at DEC which serves as the intake facility for all male inmates who are new admits or returning to us from the community,” Frakes said.

The state said Wednesday that 2,676 new virus cases and 17 deaths were reported in the past week, up from 2,575 cases and no deaths the week before. The current case numbers are more than 10 times higher than the 253 cases per week the state reported in late June.

The number of people hospitalized with the virus grew by 60 over the past week to reach 277. The number of hospitalizations has grown significantly since June 30, when 28 people were hospitalized and the state lifted its last virus restrictions.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Nebraska rose over the past two weeks from 372 new cases per day on Aug. 2 to 451.29 new cases per day on Monday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, which has long been concerned about overcrowding in the state prison system, said the fact that the intake facility’s average daily population of 418 over the previous year represents 209% of the facility’s operational capacity likely contributed to the virus outbreak there.

“It was already a bad situation,” said ACLU of Nebraska spokesperson Sam Petto. “I don’t see a circumstance in which you could argue that managing a pandemic is helped by the severe understaffing and overcrowding.”

The state, which currently houses 5,424 inmates, has reported 1,026 virus cases and eight inmate deaths — including two last week — since the pandemic began.

Officials said the state has vaccinated 3,137 inmates and 1,284 staff members, but it doesn’t have a current count of how many have been vaccinated. Some people may have received their shots in the community and nearly 1,200 inmates have been discharged since vaccinations started.

Across Nebraska, roughly 51.2% of the state’s residents have been fully vaccinated against the virus.