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Testing ramps up, cases increase in area prisons


April 24, 2020

Department of Corrections photo

Three inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility - Moose Lake filed a petition to be released early due to conditions they say are not protecting them from getting COVID-19.

On a day that saw Minnesota deaths due to COVID-19 jump to 179 - the largest increase yet - and confirmed numbers of infected rise to a total of 2,721 statewide, the state prisons in Moose Lake and Willow River also saw a startling increase as more inmates are being tested in both Minnesota Department of Corrections facilities.

The number of patients tested at Moose Lake almost doubled, jumping from 24 to 45, with 14 confirmed positive, 12 confirmed negative and 19 test results pending. At Willow River, the increase was even bigger, going from 10 to 51 people tested, with 15 confirmed positive, two confirmed negative and 34 tests pending, according to a DOC report on Wednesday, April 22.

Additionally, Moose Lake reported 31 people "presumed positive" and Willow River reported six "presumed positive" on Wednesday. (A person is presumed positive when they have symptoms and are known to have had close contact with a person who was confirmed positive through testing.)

That's a total of 66 positive inmate cases in the two local prisons, and 53 tests that have yet to be confirmed one way or another. A total of 24 inmates have recovered and no longer require isolation.

DOC spokesperson Nicholas Kimball said the department is aware of 37 confirmed or presumed cases among staff at the two facilities, bringing the total number of infected in both facilities to more than100 and probably higher once pending tests are completed.

A disparity between the Minnesota Department of Health and the DOC was also in evidence Wednesday. MDH reported a total of 38 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Carlton County, saying it included the Moose Lake prison.

The MDH counted 15 cases in Pine County, where the Willow River facility is located.

The DOC numbers are usually more current and also include "presumed" cases, while MDH doesn't include the presumed numbers - although they are based on federal and state guidelines.

Statewide testing

Testing has been the Achilles heel of the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and partners unveiled a massive COVID-19 testing plan during a press conference Wednesday, comparing it to a moonshot, but at the same time telling people it does not mean things will go back to normal. Rather, he said, it's "one tool in the toolbox that leads us in that direction."

So far the state has been unable to reach the governor's initial goal of at least 5,000 tests completed daily, managing only about a quarter of that. But Walz's office said the state's plan with the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic could ramp up testing to as many as 20,000 Minnesotans per day. It would include tests that diagnose people who have the virus and other tests that determine whether a person has developed antibodies to fight the virus (after being infected).

Health commissioner Jan Malcolm said the plan will be implemented quickly. Residents with COVID-19 symptoms will be among the first tested, with a focus first on vulnerable populations and critical infrastructure workers.

Greater testing will also reveal greater numbers of infected, as demonstrated by the prisons. Some experts have said the United States and other countries with a lack of tests may be underestimating the true spread of the disease by as much as 90 percent.

Real struggle

The infections at the prison facilities in Moose Lake and Willow River continue to grow, and the DOC response has been evolving. Kimball said the DOC has worked closely with MDH and followed all guidelines for isolation, quarantine, and testing from the beginning.

The DOC announced a "stay in unit" measure earlier this month to help with transmission control, 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.

As of last week, all staff at both facilities were given N95 masks.

Currently officials are working on plans to provide lodging options for staff members who might want it.

"As staff make decisions for themselves and their families we are supporting different options that might work best based on individual circumstances," he said. "They have family members and others they care about who live in the community and they take health and safety very seriously. Each person is taking precautions and making plans that fit their situation and we are supporting them in those efforts."

As of Wednesday, Kimball said one staff member remains hospitalized and another staff member has been discharged from the hospital since last week. Of the 37 infected staff members at both facilities, at least 12 have returned to work after recovering.

Two inmates are also hospitalized. Kimball said they aren't breaking down inmate hospitalizations by facility or location for security reasons, but the Moose Lake and Willow River are the only Minnesota correctional facilities in the state that have had any inmates confirmed positive, although the other 10 facilities have each had patients tested.

So far, neither the prisons nor Carlton County are reporting any deaths from COVID-19.

Latest update

On Friday, after the Pine Knot News went to press and the above story was published, the Minnesota Department of Corrections sent out a media release regarding increased COVID-19 testing capacity at the state prisons and highlighting population management strategies.

Highlights from that press release follow:

The Minnesota Department of Corrections continues its ongoing collaboration with the Department of Health for guidance around CDC protocols for the prevention and management of COVID-19 infection within correctional institutions. The DOC has implemented a number of measures to minimize the impact of COVID-19 in Minnesota's correctional facilities.

Recently implemented measures include increased testing capacity, as reflected in the daily publication of COVID-19 test status and results on the DOC website, and a number of population management strategies. Details of those measures are below. To aid in the prevention and management of COVID-19, DOC aims to continue with increased testing. At present, the agency is focused on increased testing at MCF-Moose Lake and MCF-Willow River.

As has been noted by Governor Walz, it is only through widespread testing that we can target efforts to protect those most medically vulnerable to COVID-19," DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said. "As studies have found, many cases of COVID-19 result in mild to moderate symptoms or even no symptoms at all. Of particular concern is the reality that those with minor symptoms can spread COVID-19 to others."


As has been experienced in communities around the world, increased testing by the DOC has revealed increased numbers of COVID-19 positive individuals, many of whom are asymptomatic. To date, just two of Minnesota's 11 correctional facilities have incarcerated people with confirmed cases of COVID-19. (Those are Moose Lake and Willow River.)

· Of the 212 incarcerated individuals tested for COVID-19 across Minnesota, 122 were asymptomatic at the time of the test. Thirty tested positive. Those 30 remain asymptomatic.

· 30 other incarcerated individuals who were confirmed positive or presumed positive have had their symptoms resolve and have returned to the general population.

· One incarcerated person is currently hospitalized with COVID-19 related complications. A second person was hospitalized with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 but tested negative.

· All others are isolated and being treated in their facility with mild to moderate symptoms.


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