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Sweeping measures against coronavirus deployed in North Dakota prisons

Sweeping measures against coronavirus deployed in North Dakota prisons

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Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, updates state lawmakers on the department's response to the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday in the state Capitol in Bismarck.

Seven inmates and seven staff of North Dakota's corrections system have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the coronavirus pandemic emerged in the state, with most of those cases at the State Penitentiary in Bismarck.

North Dakota's top corrections official on Wednesday updated the Legislature's interim Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Review Committee on her agency's response to the pandemic. The department oversees state-sentenced incarceration, parole and probation, among other duties.

The department's efforts have included suspending prison visitation and new admissions, quarantining and testing before and after jail transports, and separating groups of inmates by wings and floors of housing.

Only three staff have not yet recovered. There have been no related deaths.

Department Director Leann Bertsch said corrections officials moved quickly after the first coronavirus case was confirmed in North Dakota in March and haven't let up since, relying on Medical Director Dr. John Hagan's recommendations and previous pandemic plans from the 2005 avian flu outbreak.

Bertsch, who leaves July 31 for a new job in Utah after 15 years heading corrections, said figuring her department's "new norm" for operational capacity remains an ongoing discussion.

"I don't think that this is going to end any time soon," she said.

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She outlined her efforts to "de-densify" prisons through early paroles and community placements, due to the inability to socially distance inmates in prisons.

The department's total corrections population went from a daily average of 1,515 in March to 1,271 in June, according to Bertsch's chronological report to lawmakers. The department has about 900 full-time staff.

All staff and inmates have been tested at least once, many of them twice. More than 3,500 tests have been conducted.

"If a resident expresses they feel they have symptoms when a mass testing event is not happening, they will be tested," department spokeswoman Kayli Richards said.

Antibody testing begins this week, Bertsch said. Richards said the voluntary blood draw testing Thursday and Friday will be available for staff, but not yet for inmates.

North Dakota's Department of Health is looking into wastewater testing to track coronavirus in the prisons, Bertsch said.

Prisoners recreate and dine within their separate housing groups, according to Bertsch. Educators and treatment providers visit inmates' housing to limit exposure. The department made free phone calls and video visitation available to inmates. Medical staff consult virtually via iPads to limit physical contact.

New admissions to prisons resumed in May and June. County jail inmates quarantine for 14 days and are tested prior to transport to prisons, then are quarantined and tested again before joining a prison's general population, Bertsch said.

The department and jails also developed a "vulnerable population protection plan," a strategy spearheaded by the state Department of Human Services for reopening long-term care facilities and protecting residents who are elderly or have disabilities.

"We're just as vulnerable as nursing homes," Bertsch said.

County jails were left "in a pinch" when admission to prisons was suspended March 13 for sentenced inmates, said Donnell Preskey Hushka, executive director of the North Dakota Sheriffs & Deputies Association.

Currently, 151 state-sentenced inmates remain in county jails, a holding that costs more than $1 million, to be reimbursed by federal CARES Act aid, she said.

"The greater issue here is really the impact on space availability at local facilities," she said, pointing to jails trying to follow coronavirus health guidelines while both holding sentenced inmates and accepting newly arrested people.

The North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck has had five inmates -- now all recovered -- and five staff test positive for COVID-19. Three staff are still sick. The Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck and the Youth Correctional Center in Mandan have had no cases.

Visitation has resumed at some state corrections facilities, but with restrictions and measures for screening, social distancing and sanitizing.

COVID-19 diagnoses in Burleigh and Morton counties have been increasing in recent weeks. Burleigh leads the state in active cases but has had no deaths.

Bertsch urged vigilance against the virus.

"We are doing an amazing job, but I would just say that we can't let our guard down and act like it's gone away because we want it to go away. We're still not there yet," she said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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