In response to growing numbers of both COVID-19 infections and deaths possibly caused by the virus across its prison system, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections announced Tuesday new measures meant to get outbreaks under control.
"Every time I learn of a new case, it really makes me sick," said Scott Crow, director of the agency, at a press conference with Gov. Kevin Stitt at the Capitol, "because this is extremely important."
"A positive case makes me sick, but an inmate death even makes me sicker," Crow said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the agency was reporting seven inmates suspected of dying of COVID-19 pending a medical examiner's report, with two inmates confirmed to have died due to the disease. Three staff were also reported dead, possibly caused by the virus. 3,168 inmates were reported to have been infected.
Advocates, public health experts, and House Democrats had called for the agency to mandate testing for staff, which they call an important step to mitigate spread among inmates, employees, and staff members' families and communities, since COVID-19 can be spread by those without symptoms. DOC employees have not been required to undergo testing.
"One of the things that we [were] concerned with early on is the legal mechanism, or legal ability, for us to be able to move forward with mandatory testing," Crow said. "We now believe -- or don't believe, we now have the framework in place, in working with the [Oklahoma State Department of Health], to ensure that we can confidently do that, and that's our plan moving forward."
In a statement issued following the press conference, House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman), who had called for such a change, said, "A mandatory DOC staff testing program is the right call. Requiring staff to be tested is about protecting communities, state employees, and inmates held in state facilities. As a caucus, House Democrats are committed to ending COVID in Oklahoma, and we will continue to call for our state government to implement more recommendations that are science-based and backed by public health experts.”
Crow said more details on the plan would be released Wednesday. Crow also highlighted a recent announcement that the department would be designating facilities "hot spots" should they hit a certain threshold of uncontrolled spread of the virus, which would trigger additional resources for that prison, as well as $2/hour hazard pay for staff there.
"In an ongoing effort to provide the best defense against COVID-19, Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) is deploying Rapid Response Teams to facilities declared virus 'hot spots,'" DOC said in a Friday press release. "Within 24 hours of this designation, the team meets with the facility warden and walks him through every step of the agency’s COVID-19 Hot Spot Action Plan."
"The medical decision to declare a hot spot triggers a number of steps to contain the virus, including ceasing visitation, testing all inmates in the hot spot area, quarantining/isolating those positive and those exposed, moving staff work locations to other areas of the facility, and providing additional PPE kits for staff," according to the release.
Crow said Tuesday that eight facilities are currently considered "hot spots," including Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Muskogee County, where almost every woman incarcerated contracted the disease, and William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply, where nearly every man incarcerated is currently infected.
Stitt said Crow and DOC had his full confidence.
"Our Department of Corrections was really a national leader early on in this pandemic, and I'm confident Director Crow's team will continue working to bring these cases down across the state and keep our inmates and all the staff safe," the governor said.