Covid-19 resurface in Cummins lockup dismays

story.lead_photo.captionThis file photo, shows a sign for the Arkansas Department of Correction’s Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark.

Dozens of new covid-19 infections were identified earlier this week at the Cummins Unit prison, officials said Thursday, dashing hopes that the Department of Corrections had successfully contained one of the state’s largest outbreaks.

The state Health Department added 30 cases to its tally at the Cummins Unit on Tuesday, bringing the total there to 993. Cindy Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said there were 41 active cases at the unit Thursday.

Before this week, no inmates or staff members at the Lincoln County prison had tested positive for the virus since June 1, according to Health Department records.

Active cases at the prison, once numbering in the hundreds, had plunged earlier this month to zero under a Health Department policy that considers inmates recovered two weeks after they test positive. Of those who tested positive, 11 died.

The source of the new infections was not immediately known, Murphy said.

Arkansas Health Secretary Nate Smith, when asked about the new infections Thursday, said it was emblematic of the difficulties of keeping the virus contained in a crowded prison setting, even if measures are taken to quarantine inmates.

Other Arkansas prisons that have been the site of outbreaks, such as the Randall L. Williams Unit and the federal prison in Forrest City, have had active cases drop, only to have new cases emerge in other parts of the prison.

“If it’s shortly after the outbreak has resolved, it could be that there was someone who initially tested negative but was actually incubating infection and then later goes on to develop infection,” Smith said. “But then we also have staff who are coming and going, and all the same things that caused the introduction in the first place.”

The Health Department reported two additional covid-positive staff members at the Cummins Unit on Thursday, though they were already listed as recovered.

The Cummins prisoners who tested positive for covid-19 this week had previously tested negative and had been housed in barracks separate from where positive-tested inmates were kept, according to Murphy. Now, they are being held together in barracks at the prison’s South Hall, she said.

“We feel like we have things under control,” she said Thursday.

DeMarco Raynor, a prisoner at the Cummins Unit who tested positive for covid-19 on April 18, said Thursday that effects of the virus do not appear to have abated in his barracks and that positive-tested inmates were never retested to see if they had recovered.

“Different people are getting sick on and off at different times,” he said.

On Wednesday, Raynor said a deputy warden arrived at his barracks and said inmates would be resuming work in the fields around the prison farm starting Monday. Raynor, who is serving a life sentence for murder, has spoken about the conditions at Cummins to several news outlets, including the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Murphy confirmed that the prison is resuming field squads on a “limited basis” after the work was halted on April 11 because of the virus. She said the first crew of about 70 prisoners would come from a single barracks to harvest potatoes, corn, squash and cucumbers that will be used for food around the Department of Corrections.

“We see this as a small step to resuming normal operations now that we have more than 950 inmates that have recovered,” Murphy said.

Beyond the Cummins Unit, outbreaks of the virus are ongoing at the East Arkansas Regional Unit in Lee County, the Ouachita River Unit in Hot Spring County and the Wrightsville Unit in Pulaski County, along with two county jails in Northwest Arkansas. The vast majority of cases at those facilities are still considered active by the Health Department.

There were 168 new cases of the virus reported statewide at correctional institutions Thursday.

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