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Tennessee Prison Criticized For Its COVID-19 Response


Hundreds of inmates and workers have tested positive for coronavirus at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in Tennessee. Hundreds of staff, inmates and their loved ones describe nurses being told not to wear face masks, as well as sick and healthy prisoners locked together in a cell. Samantha Max of our member station WPLN has this story.

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: February 27 - that was the day Dr. Emma Rich first realized COVID-19 might become a problem at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex. The issue came up during a medical staff meeting.

EMMA RICH: What was asked at that meeting was what is our plan? And the plan is there isn't one.

MAX: About 600 inmates and staff have since tested positive for the virus. That makes Bledsoe one of the largest hot spots in the country. Interviews with more than a dozen employees and inmates' loved ones, letters from prisoners and internal documents reveal multiple missed opportunities to prevent the spread of the outbreak.

RICH: This was 100% preventable. What they've done is unforgivable, as far as I'm concerned.

MAX: Rich took a leave of absence on March 31 after her supervisors told her she couldn't wear a mask to work. They said the prison had to preserve personal protective equipment for patients who had already tested positive for COVID-19 or who were clearly showing symptoms. Centurion, the prison's private health care provider, said later in a written response that it's been following evolving guidance from public health officials. Cloth masks are now allowed, but N95s are still being saved for the most serious cases.

RICH: That's ridiculous.

MAX: Other medical staff have walked off the job in recent weeks out of frustration, and at least 11 correctional officers have also left the prison since the start of the pandemic. About 30 have been unable to report to work after testing positive for the virus. If staffing levels get too low, the prison will have to bring in the Tennessee National Guard.

DORINDA CARTER: The facility and the department has done everything humanly possible to try to prevent the spread as best we can.

MAX: Department of Correction spokesperson Dorinda Carter says officials are working around-the-clock to keep both inmates and employees safe.

CARTER: This is a new, you know, a novel virus. We are all sort of learning as we go.

MAX: The Department of Correction began mass testing at the prison in April. That's when Tasha Lee found out her husband had tested negative, but not his cellmate.

TASHA LEE: He was asking about getting moved out because his cellmate had it, and they told him that he was already exposed, so he probably had it, and he would either get it or he wouldn't.

MAX: Carter, from the Department of Correction, confirms that cellmates have stayed together, even if one tested positive for the virus but is asymptomatic. That was the case with Lee's husband. His cellmate didn't show symptoms, but he eventually did. He told Lee on the phone that he'd woken up sore all over. She could hear the congestion in his voice.

LEE: They're telling the public one thing, but they're doing the complete opposite of that.

MAX: Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey stands by the state's response. She says officials have followed CDC guidelines to every letter of the law.


LISA PIERCEY: You can do everything right and still have this virus get into the facility.

MAX: But Dr. Rich says the prison hasn't done enough. Her supervisors say they can't meet several of the demands she's laid out to return to work - not even a daily decontamination process in patient care areas.

RICH: All of these people deserve and are legally required to get adequate health care, and they weren't provided that.

MAX: Rich says she won't return until more protective measures are put in place.

For NPR News, I'm Samantha Max in Nashville.


Samantha Max