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Inmate at Oregon State Penitentiary dies after testing positive for coronavirus

It could be the first known COVID-19-related death in Oregon's prison system during the pandemic. It comes amid a surge of infections at the state penitentiary.
Credit: DANIELLE PETERSON / Statesman Journal
The Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

SALEM, Ore — A man incarcerated at the Oregon State Penitentiary who tested positive for the coronavirus has died, marking what could be the first known coronavirus-related death in the state’s prison system.

The man died at a hospital on Wednesday, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections. He was between 50 and 60 years old. Officials did not say when he tested positive for COVID-19. A medical examiner will determine his cause of death.

There has been a surge of known coronavirus infections at the state penitentiary in Salem. As of Tuesday, 115 inmates and 26 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the DOC. Just a week prior, on May 12, 57 inmates had tested positive. Fourteen tests were pending results.

According to the DOC, 45 inmates at OSP have been placed in medical isolation and 1,975 inmates are in quarantine. Medical isolation means confining an inmate with a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case to a single cell with a solid door that closes. In the Oregon State Penitentiary's case, a quarantine has been placed for the entire facility, meaning all inmates with symptoms are being tested. If any new cases are found, the 14-day quarantine starts back up.

The Oregon State Penitentiary has by far the highest concentration of inmates with coronavirus among the state's 14 prisons.

RELATED: Coronavirus cases at Oregon State Penitentiary surge as 115 inmates test positive

A fight broke out among 215 inmates at OSP on May 10, but DOC officials say it was unrelated to COVID-19.

The other facilities that have positive coronavirus cases are:

  • Shutter Creek Correctional Facility: 25 inmates, 3 staff members
  • Santiam Correctional Facility: 7 inmates, 6 staff members
  • Two Rivers Correctional Institution: 1 inmate, 3 staff members

As of May 19, 504 inmates statewide have been tested for coronavirus, while 16 tests remain pending statewide.

Oregon's prisons house close to 14,500 inmates and they're run by more than 4,500 employees.

KGW spoke with Dr. Christopher DiGiulio, the chief of medicine for the Oregon Department of Corrections, in April. Dr. DiGiulio said he, along with an infectious disease specialist, nurses and volunteers honed in on a portion of the prison population that had “close contact” with an individual who tested positive. They’ve been taking the inmates' temperatures and asking them a CDC-approved questionnaire.

When asked if it’s possible to keep inmates 6 feet apart as recommended by the CDC, Dr. DiGiulio said, “We are doing our very best.”

Prison facilities are being cleaned numerous times a day, the DOC said, including disinfecting housing units, bathrooms, eating areas, doors, stairwells and countertops. Every inmate has been offered two masks and employees have been offered one, according to the DOC.

Gov. Kate Brown has previously said there will no be mass inmate release due to COVID-19 but left the door open for action on a case-by-case basis.

The Oregon Justice Resource Center says the man's death further highlights the need for the governor to protect inmates.

"We have heard from dozens of incarcerated Oregonians, many of whom are medically vulnerable, and their families about their fears of the harm contracting the disease could do to them," said Juan Chavez, director of the Civil Rights Project at the Oregon Justice Resource Center. "There is an urgent and clear need for a comprehensive program of prevention, testing, and care to be implemented throughout Oregon’s prisons. Governor Brown must no longer ignore the reality that prisons are not built to withstand a global pandemic and act the knowledge she has of the risk of harm that exists for all those who work and live in the prisons.”

RELATED: Gov. Brown: No mass inmate release but case-by-case action possible due to COVID-19