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Outbreak continues at Moose Lake prison, two staff members hospitalized

Prisoners file lawsuit asking for early release to allow social distancing


April 17, 2020

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed court documents Wednesday demanding the release of inmates endangered by COVID-19 at the Moose Lake prison.

A Moose Lake corrections officer is in intensive care with COVID-19 complications, while a second staff member has been hospitalized for the disease, but is not in ICU, according to Minnesota Department of Corrections spokesperson Nicholas Kimball. A total of 12 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Moose Lake.

Meanwhile, the number of cases continues to grow steadily among the incarcerated people there. As of Wednesday afternoon, 12 inmates had tested positive for the disease at Moose Lake, with one negative test and two more tests pending, along with 31 prisoners who are "presumed positive."

"We follow MDH protocol for how testing is conducted," Kimball explained. "If a person has symptoms and is known to have had close contact to a person confirmed positive through testing, they are presumed positive, treated as positive with isolation and medical care provided, and not tested."

Including the 12 staff members, that adds up to at least 55 people at the Moose Lake prison who almost certainly have COVID-19. Seven of those have recovered and no longer require isolation, according to the April 15 DOC report. (Find the daily report online at


Additionally, the DOC reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 at its Challenge Incarceration Program in Willow River last weekend, and that number is now up to three inmates confirmed positive, with five more "presumed positive." Two staff members have also tested positive at Willow River.

Kimball said the two correctional facilities are traditionally treated as two sites of one correctional facility - with unique buildings and populations - but staff have not been allowed to move back and forth between the two facilities since the response to the pandemic began, with the possible exception of three shared nurses. The two sites are the only ones out of 11 Minnesota correctional facilities to report any confirmed or presumed cases.

Kimball noted that the DOC has worked closely with the Minnesota Department of Health and followed all guidelines for isolation, quarantine, and testing from the beginning, but it hasn't been easy.

"As you might imagine, prisons are unique institutions to operate under regular conditions, but managing prison safety during a pandemic is immensely difficult," Kimball said, adding that virus-prevention efforts and spread control have been the DOC's top priorities.


The DOC announced a "stay in unit" measure last week for Moose Lake, which basically isolates prisoners with the same group of people, rather than allowing them to move between groups at mealtimes or during programming, for example. The plan keeps inmates only with others in their living unit for daily activities. Each DOC facility has developed and implemented a similar plan. Additionally, every staff member and inmate is now required to wear a cloth barrier mask. Services staff have N95 masks, and there are a limited number of N95s for corrections officers to use when escorting symptomatic inmates to isolation, or when packing up the property of a symptomatic inmate.

Down the road

Staff are taking additional steps in Willow River as well.

"With the now positive test at Willow River, the barracks where the individual was living is under quarantine and health staff are conducting temperature checks twice daily for all," Kimball said, adding that the infected prisoners are "isolated in an alternative location."

The DOC has also implemented a number of measures to protect DOC staff and their families. As with health care workers, DOC staff have been instructed to designate a door at home just for them to enter and exit. They are told to change clothes and shower as soon as they get home, change shoes, wash and dry clothes regularly, avoid sharing food and to take other protective measures. The Moose Lake facility has added handwashing stations and lots of hand sanitizer receptacles.

"DOC staff are very similar to health care workers, staff in nursing homes, and other settings where they put themselves potentially at risk but have to continue coming to work to provide critical services," Kimball said. "They, and the department as a whole, take health and safety very seriously."

When asked about cases where prison staff went to stores in the community in their uniforms, Kimball pointed out that the prison runs three shifts, 24/7, so a staff member could be on his or her way into work in a fresh uniform. It's difficult to know, he said.

"Our staff members live in the community too," he said. "They have family, people they care about, but they have to go to work to fulfill their essential duties. So they are taking precautions: good hygiene at work, changing and showering at home. They care about the community too. And they're putting themselves in harm's way by coming to work, similar to health care workers. So if you see someone at the store, keep that in mind."

The DOC spokesperson made the point that the coronavirus has likely spread throughout the general population already, that they're just not tested.

"There aren't enough tests, for the community, the state or the prisons," he said. "To believe 'our town doesn't have it yet,' is not a viable way to operate during this pandemic."


Suit filed for inmates

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed court documents Wednesday demanding the release of inmates endangered by COVID-19 at the Moose Lake prison. A petition was filed in Sixth District Court in Carlton against the state Department of Corrections. At least a dozen inmates in Moose Lake are confirmed as positive for COVID-19 and another 31 inmates are presumed positive, the DOC has reported. The ACLUalso mentioned that correctional staff also have COVID-19. ACLU attorney Dan Shulman said the lawsuit asks the state to appoint someone to help the Corrections Department increase testing and social distancing efforts. The petition says the prison is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to keep people in custody safe. It alleges the prison is still holding as many as eight men in a cell and permitting unrestricted access to showers, communal phones, vending machines and other facilities. The organization says there is no way for people in the prison to practice social distancing.

~Mike Creger / Pine Knot News


Following illness numbers can be a tricky game

It can be tempting to fixate on numbers as the coronavirus makes its way through the population near and far. Each day, government agencies faithfully report the number of confirmed cases, the number of dead, the number of those who have recovered and more.

But those numbers don’t always add up, and they don’t tell the full story.

So far, in Carlton County, the majority of confirmed COVID-19 cases is related to the Moose Lake prison, either people incarcerated there or prison employees who work there. But the number of confirmed cases tells only part of the story. A lack of tests means that many who are sick with symptoms of COVID-19 are not tested — and therefore not counted, even if they called a hotline or talked to a doctor — because they’re not in a priority group for testing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says hospitalized patients and health care workers should be at the front of the line for testing. People in long-term care and other congregate living facilities (such as group homes, jails and prisons) should come next. A person living in a single-family home will, in most cases, be told to isolate themselves. Unless they begin to have breathing problems, these people won’t be tested because they won’t end up in the hospital.

Carlton County public information office and public health educator Meghann Levitt said the Minnesota Department of Health investigates each lab-confirmed positive case.

“We know this is only a snapshot of current activity, as community transmission is prevalent and there are many more cases occurring than have been lab tested,” Levitt said in an interview with the Pine Knot News earlier this month.

Just how much the U.S. and other countries are undercounting the number of infected people and deaths due to COVID-19 is unknown.

But practices and procedures are changing as the disease continues to spread. New York City is now including “probable” deaths, people who displayed symptoms but were not tested. The death toll there topped 10,000 on Tuesday, April 14, after city health officials reported 3,778 new fatalities throughout the duration of the pandemic.

In Minnesota, the Department of Corrections is reporting “presumed” cases among the incarcerated but, so far, the Minnesota Department of Health is not including those cases in its daily tally. On Wednesday, the DOC reported a total of 43 confirmed and presumed cases of COVID-19 at its Moose Lake facility. The same day, MDH reported a total of 27 cases in Carlton County.

Levitt expects tracking to get better with time, but encourages people to be patient and keep following the health and safety recommendations.

Including staff and inmates who are both confirmed and presumed positive for COVID-19, the number of sick at Moose Lake Prison had reached 55 as of April 15. That includes seven who have recovered.

“MDH and Governor Walz are working with local partners to pursue better ways of tracking cases, down the road, through testing measures,” she said. “Since most cases are mild though, those who have symptoms of COVID-19 are encouraged to stay at home, and not seek medical care unless their symptoms worsen or become unmanageable at home. It is OK not to be tested, and the best prevention right now is to stay home, practice social distancing, wash your hands and cover your cough.”


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