Coyote Ridge sees rise in COVID cases as omicron surges

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Tri-City Herald

The latest COVID surge is hitting the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, according to figures released by the state.

In the past 30 days, Connell Prison has recorded 174 new cases of COVID, Washington State reported Department of Corrections.

And nearly half of those happened in the past week, affecting inmates and staff.

The current spike represents nearly a third of the 625 total cases in the minimum-to-medium security prison since the start of the pandemic.

It is the biggest spike in cases at the prison since November and December 2020, when 149 people, including 114 inmates, were infected.

“The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) continues to see significant impacts from the omicron variant COVID-19 reflected across the state,” according to a Jan. 11 memo from Sean Murphy, assistant secretary of the penitentiary system.

Family members of prisoners told the Herald they are concerned about how the Department of Corrections is handling this most recent outbreak. One person was concerned about not being able to get vaccinated in Coyote Ridge.

In response to the increase in cases, the state has temporarily suspended visits.

The agency said it was monitoring COVID data and acting on advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Washington State Department of Health.

The numbers from Connell Jail north of the Tri-Cities reflect the continued rise in cases in Benton and Franklin counties generally.

On Friday, the Tri-Cities rate had climbed to 2,550 new cases per 100,000 over two weeks.

During the pandemic, three Coyote Ridge inmates died of complications from the coronavirus.

Benton County Jail

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While COVID may be heading for a peak in Coyote Ridge, rates have improved at Benton County Jail, Lt. Josh Combs said.

Earlier this week, the prison reported that 97 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 and were being monitored by medical personnel. The prison houses 420 inmates in 20 living units

That number had fallen to 66 by Friday afternoon.

“We seem to be rounding the corner,” Benton County Corrections Department Lt. Joshua Combs said.

They also saw a drop in the number of inmates who need to be quarantined, Combs said.

The omicron variant suddenly hit the prison in several different areas, Combs said.

It started about two weeks ago, with cases breaking out in five dwellings simultaneously. At first with just one case, but after testing they discovered that several others had no symptoms or were just starting to show them.

In total, prison staff discovered that eight of the 20 accommodation units were affected. In addition to the sick inmates, 91 others have been placed in quarantine. They have been monitored and tested at regular intervals under the direction of public health officials.

Jail officials worked closely with the Benton Franklin Health District and followed advice from the National Sheriff’s Association and the CDC Corrections Unit.

The corrections department first contacted the district court to discuss limiting the number of new inmates sent to jail. Combs explained that prison officials are not making this decision unilaterally. Court officials have agreed not to hold most felony offenders on bail of less than $5,000 in jail.

This does not affect cases where it is mandatory to imprison someone, such as a domestic violence assault or a criminal crime.

Combs also explained that they have some leeway, so if it’s more dangerous to let someone stay out of jail, they’ll book it even if it’s a misdemeanor.

COVID has also affected prison staff. At the height of the infections, they had 24 sick employees at home.

Combs said 20 of them have returned to work.

“We appreciate how our staff have come together,” he said. “It was a Herculean effort.”

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Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.


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