A photo of the Wyoming Women's Center in Lusk, the state's only women's prison. (Wyoming Department of Corrections website)

No new cases of COVID-19 have surfaced since a staff member at the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk, the state’s only women’s prison, tested positive, a prison spokesperson said on Tuesday.

The agency announced on April 10 that a staff member had tested positive for the disease. 

Since then, four staff members who had been in contact with the sick staffer came out of quarantine on April 15 without ever showing symptoms of being ill, Wyoming Department of Corrections spokesman Mark Horan told WyoFile on Tuesday. Three inmates have also been quarantined to see if symptoms appear and two inmates have been isolated out of concerns that they had symptoms of the virus. 

Isolating and quarantining are separate terms — isolation is for people showing symptoms or who has been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient, while quarantine is to wait and see if an individual develops the disease — but in both cases, the inmates were moved to separate areas of the prison and kept alone. 

The department is quarantining all new inmates entering into the prison, Horan said, which accounts for one of the inmate quarantines. 

Four inmates had been tested, Horan said. Three tests came back negative, but the department is waiting on a retest of one of those because the inmate maintained a cough, he said. A fourth test result is pending. 

Outside the prison, Niobrara County health officials contacted and quarantined every family member and close contact of the staff member who tested positive for COVID-19, Kody Nelson, director of operations at the Niobrara Community Hospital, said. “None of them showed any symptoms afterwards,” said. 

To date, the staff member is the only confirmed case in Niobrara County, according to the Department of Health. DOH also lists one probable case for the county — meaning a person who was in close contact with a positive case and had symptoms of COVID-19 but was never tested. 

The hospital had contracted with the prison for laundry services, Nelson said. Orders came down from state officials that the contract would have to be postponed to protect the inmates from outside exposure, Nelson said. 

Nationally, health officials have worried COVID-19 could spread rapidly through prisons and jails. The Cook County jail in Chicago was the nation’s largest known source of COVID-19 infections as of April 8, according to the New York Times. State prisons in Michigan and Illinois as well as at least one federal prison have also been hot spots for the disease. 

In Wyoming, Horan has been taking phone calls from concerned relatives of inmates, “which I get,” he said, but the DOC is taking measures to prevent COVID-19 from infecting its prisons. 

“The [staff] are really working hard to make sure that the virus doesn’t get into the facilities,” Horan said. 

Craig Plyer (left) and Jim Rich stand next to bundles of sneeze guards produced at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. (Handout/Wyoming Department of Corrections)

Staff are required to wear cloth masks, and inmates have been producing masks and other personal protective equipment in prison industry workshops, according to a WDOC press release on April 17. The masks are being made in orange for inmates and white for staff. The inmates are also making plastic sneeze guards and gowns that will be distributed “should the need arise,” the press release said.

Friday’s press release did not provide quarantine and isolation numbers in Lusk or elsewhere in the state’s prison system. “To date there have been no reported positive cases within the WDOC inmate population,” it said.

Alternating shifts of inmate cleaning crews have been at work constantly, Horan said. 

“The facilities have probably never been cleaner than they are right now,” Horan said.

In recent years, the DOC has frequently transferred inmates from prisons to county jails because of capacity issues. Now, “we’re not really moving them between facilities if we don’t have to,” Horan said. Inmates are still transferred for medical emergencies, he said. 

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Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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