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Major Prison Outbreak Sends Muskogee Area's COVID-19 Numbers Skyrocketing

Oklahoma Department of Corrections
Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility Warden Natalie Cooper (center) presents the Muskogee VFW post with face coverings sewn by inmates in May.

More than 500 people incarcerated at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility, a minimum-security women's state prison in Muskogee County, have tested positive for COVID-19, an outbreak causing the Muskogee area's infection data to soar.

According to a New York Times data analysis, the Muskogee micropolitan statistical area on Monday ranked third in the United States for metropolitan and micropolitan areas where cases are rising the fastest, after Ames, Iowa, and Auburn-Opelika, Ala. 

"We posted last week, on the 28th of August, that Muskogee County was going to see a dramatic increase in positive COVID-19 cases, and this is due to an outbreak in a congregate living facility, and we want to make sure that Muskogee County understands that this is not an indication of community spread," said Kristen Carollo, public information officer for the Muskogee County Health Department, in a Monday phone interview.

"We're working closely with the facility to mitigate the spread and follow the guidelines that we have in place to protect everyone," Carollo said.

"It’s not real reflective of community spread, which is what we are concerned about," said Tyler Evans, director of emergency management for the city of Muskogee, of the outbreak. (The prison is in the neighboring town of Taft.)

Evans said that while the outbreak is currently limited to the facility, they are monitoring the situation in case community spread begins to appear in the outside community.

"Yes, that is a concern. I know quite a few of the workers at the correctional facilities reside in the City of Muskogee," Evans said in an email. "We are asking and encouraging our residents to follow the CDC guidelines, practice social distancing, wash and sanitize their hands often, and utilize a face covering when out in public."

As of Monday, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections reported that 15 staff members at Eddie Warrior have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

In a video posted Friday, Muskogee Mayor Marlon Coleman called on residents to be vigilant in light of the spike in cases.

"I'm going to take this opportunity to remind all of our residents here in the city of Muskogee that you should voluntarily be wearing your mask, that you should voluntarily be practicing social distancing wherever possible," Coleman said.

"As much as we want to respect our freedoms, we may be reaching a point where we have to take stronger measures in terms of masking, and where you can go with or without a mask."

Dr. Jennifer Clark, a professor of community health at the University of Tulsa's Oxley College of Health Sciences, said in a Monday phone interview that it is important for localities and health officials around hot-spot facilities like prisons, jails and nursing homes to be mindful of outbreaks there, rather than dismiss them as a problem separate from the greater community.

"I think it would be remiss of us to say that that's something a community doesn't need to worry about. It just makes us all vigilant," Clark said. "What are we doing from a public health standpoint to ensure that they get the care that they need, and that the outbreak is dealt with and suppressed so that it doesn't get out of that area?"

"The interplay that you get concerned about is the people that are leaving and coming into the facility, and then going back out into the community," like staff members, Clark said.

Visitation has been suspended at the Eddie Warrior facility, along with other ODOC facilities considered "hot-spots," including Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility in McLoud and Joseph Harp Correctional Facility in Lexington. 

In April, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma said they believed ODOC was not prepared to adequately handle the pandemic, and the matter needed more attention.

"I don't think people think about all of the Oklahoma families who are worried about their loved ones who are incarcerated," the ACLU of Oklahoma's Nicole McAfee told Public Radio Tulsa in an April interview. "I also think that folks don't think about what higher rate of spread in custodial facilities means for the broader public."

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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