Mass COVID-19 testing underway at prisons after several inmates, staff test positive with no symptoms


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Mass COVID-19 testing at all Tennessee Department of Correction facilities were scheduled to be underway Monday.

The mass testing comes after about half of the inmates and staff at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center tested positive for COVID-19, and 98% of those positive cases were asymptomatic.

The effort is spear-headed by Gov. Bill Lee’s COVID-19 Unified Command Group, and the TDOC commissioner, Tony Parker, applauds the decision.

“I think (Lee) has the resources. There’s more resources now than we did have, and you see him taking an aggressive approach at fighting this virus that is very elusive and very hard to understand,” Parker said.

Before widespread testing was conducted at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, Parker said they saw a similar pattern at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex.

“One of the biggest things that we don’t understand is why the corrections environment has so many asymptomatic cases,” Parker said.

He said that the staff and inmates are doing everything they can to limit exposure and spreading the virus.

They are screening employees and new inmates as they come in; checking temperatures, increasing hand sanitation practices, increased facility cleanings, giving masks to everyone, separating infected inmates who are showing symptoms and more.

“Our facilities have some of the highest sanitation standards there are. I’ve said that in our metropolitan areas, in Nashville, we have very low numbers of positive cases there, but I’ll say this too, we haven’t massed tested the population,” Parker said.

Parker said they have tested prisoners who were being released after finishing their sentences.

Some of those test results were misleading.

“We have one inmate that I know of that tested negative on one or two unit tests, and got ready to be released, (and then) tested positive,” Parker said.

Prisoners can still be released if they test positive.

“If an inmate is expiring his sentence and wants to be released, we will notify the local health department, local law enforcement and arrange for transportation that does not include public transportation. If an inmate does not wish to be released at the time of expiration, he can remain in our custody for 14 days after testing positive,” Robert Reburn, TDOC East Tennessee Region Public Information Officer, said.

Parker said testing all prison populations will help show a clearer picture of how many people have COVID-19, and could be spreading it if they are asymptomatic.

He said he doesn’t think the results will be that helpful to the outside community, though.

“So until we know what the public looks like, it’s hard to compare the public to the prison setting because we’re mass testing every prison. We’re not doing that in every community in Tennessee,” Parker said.

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