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Halfway house residents report COVID-19 outbreak

One prison case returned to IMCC

Multiple residents at the Fort Dodge Residential Correctional Facility have reported an outbreak of nine COVID-19 cases not yet acknowledged by officials.

One inmate who tested positive at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility (prison) has been returned to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (Oakdale) in Coralville, an Iowa DOC official confirmed Friday.

For the 30 to 40 people living in close quarters at the residential facility, the fear seems to be spreading as fast as the virus itself among residents. The Messenger confirmed with three separate residents that nine cases were identified in the facility Friday morning, after mass testing Thursday.

Now, everyone — positive and negative — has been told they are not allowed to leave for the next 14 days, sources said.

“Everyone’s been touching everything, we’re all in close quarters,” said Eugene Harkey, who has lived there for about a month. “We’re all concerned about our health.”

Residents alleged that the outbreak came into the facility after one resident, an employee at the Prestage Foods of Iowa meat plant in Eagle Grove, brought it back from work.

They said the nine infected residents have since been moved to another wing of the facility and put in isolation, but that some doors and areas, such as the smoking area, are still shared with other residents.

The residents are typically situated with bunk beds, with two to four residents in each room.

“They’re not letting none of us go,” Harkey said, for work, groceries, job searches or other living arrangements.

Meals are provided to residents, and residents said that $400 worth of food, soda and cigarettes had been provided to those who tested positive and were required to isolate.

“But we’ve been in contact with those people in the last five days,” said another worried resident, Jeff Johnson.

Johnson, who started at Prestage on Monday, said he won’t be able to go back to work for two weeks and is worried about paying his $620 monthly rent, in addition to his health.

He said it’s “not right” that those who tested negative have no option of relocating to a safe outside location. He reported that those of the nine he knew showed symptoms of feeling ill, but weren’t in “terrible” condition.

Johnson said that protocols and other plans for retesting at a later date have not been revealed by officials at the facility.

“My biggest concern is it getting through the entire halfway house,” said resident Rigby Ackerman.

Residents were told to not publicly report the outbreak, they said.

“They said no reporting and not to let it out publicly,” said Harkey, though no threat of potential retaliation was articulated.

“I’m sure they’ll give us some kind of sanction for this,” he said. “I don’t care what they do if we report. We’re just concerned about everybody’s safety.”

Officials for the Fort Dodge halfway house did not return calls for comment by press time Friday. The Fort Dodge Residential Correctional Facility falls under the purview of the Department of Correctional Services in the Second Judicial District.

Meanwhile, a new inmate at Fort Dodge’s prison was returned to the IMCC Thursday when he re-tested positive for COVID-19, after two negative tests.

The inmate, who first tested positive for COVID-19 on April 21 in the IMCC, tested negative twice before he was transported to the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility on Tuesday. As part of the prison’s intake process, he was tested again and held in isolation.

The man, between age 18 and 40, has been asymptomatic. DOC protocol dictates that infected inmates must test negative twice toward the end of their two-week quarantine in order to be released from isolation.

Due to a variety of factors in testing, Overton said prison officials were not be sure whether the inmate had been reinfected or whether the case was a false positive.

Medical staff at the DOC advised the case may have been a “repositive,” which happens when a positive patient tests negative before testing positive again, weeks after initial infection.

“(Repositives) can occur for weeks after being infected because fragments of viral RNA are being shed in varying amounts, not because of reinfection,” Overton said. “Recent data from the CDC indicates that the mere presence of a positive test, days or weeks after being infected, does not reflect the presence of an infectious viral particle.

Nonetheless, the cases are treated as genuine positives “out of an abundance of caution,” he said.

Repositives are “not super common, but not super rare, either,” according to Dr. Megan Srinivas, infectious disease specialist and Community Health Center of Fort Dodge physician.

She said the occurrence in other countries has made epidemiologists and public health officials rethink how long someone with the virus can shed it contagiously. The virus can shed for up to three months after infection, according to the most recent data available to her.

“(This case) is not entirely out of left field, but it’s not common for us to see after two negative tests,” she said. “It ultimately tells me the patient is still shedding and should be treated in quarantine.”

Srinivas said that anyone who was exposed to the inmate between the negative and positive re-tests should have access to testing and be monitored.

Staff at all Iowa prisons have been required to wear masks at all times for months. Inmates are advised, but usually not required, to wear their provided masks. Temperatures are randomly checked on inmates on a regular basis as staff follow precautions to ensure they aren’t bringing the virus into prisons.

Inmates are typically only eligible for testing when they display symptoms or have been exposed to other known cases in the system. Of the 31 cases in the DOC system, the vast majority are inmates at the IMCC. Fort Dodge’s facility is the largest of nine prisons in Iowa, but has only received 91 of the 1,521 COVID-19 tests administered to inmates by the DOC (5%.)

Most of the positive inmates and tests conducted were in the IMCC, Overton said, because that’s where the most ill inmates are typically held.

As the pandemic started, prisons shut off new inmate admissions from mid-April to mid-May to control the spread.

“We were able to contain that outbreak from getting further into the prisons, which was the main goal — to stop it at the quarantine intake process,” Overton said.

He called the repositive case “a lesson learned” that officials will take into account as they revise intake processes.

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