Hundreds of inmates test positive for COVID-19 at North Florida prison

California will ban the use of for-profit, private detention facilities, including those under contract to the federal government to hold immigrants awaiting deportation hearings, under a bill that Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday that he had signed.

A prison in rural North Florida has seen the number of inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 explode, with more than 400 prisoners reported testing positive for the virus this week.

On Sunday, 30 inmates at Columbia Correctional Institution had tested positive for the deadly respiratory disease, according to a Florida Department of Corrections report. By Thursday, the number had soared to 442 prisoners, as the virus continued to show that it can move rapidly through Florida’s prison system. 

At Columbia, which is near Lake City, the positivity rate was 60 percent among inmates who had received their test results, according to data released Thursday by the Department of Corrections.

Corrections officials have not provided a reason for the sudden spike in inmate cases, but data show that corrections and health officials began to aggressively test hundreds of inmates at Columbia on Friday and Saturday.

At the time, fewer than 30 inmates were known to be infected with COVID-19 and roughly 120 prisoners were in medical isolation after exhibiting symptoms of the infectious illness. By Saturday, corrections and health officials had tested 735 inmates at Columbia, with 87 percent of test results pending.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady said in an email Thursday that the department is in the process of offering tests to all inmates and staff members at the prison. As of Thursday, 1,021 inmates had undergone testing, with 27 percent of results pending.

Also, 28 workers --- including corrections officers, nurses, food service workers, administrative staff and other personnel --- have tested positive for the disease. But it is unclear how many staff members at Columbia have been tested because the department does not disclose that information.

The department does not mandate testing for staff members, though it offers and encourages workers to volunteer for testing at prisons where COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred.

The swift growth in cases has prompted corrections officials to restrict movement at Columbia to try to halt the spread of the virus.

“Columbia CI transitioned to providing all services including medical services and meals to inmates within their housing units,” corrections officials said in a news release Thursday. “Inmate transfers to and from the facility have been temporarily suspended.”

It is unclear if any of the 442 inmates who tested positive have been hospitalized because of complications of the illness. Glady did not immediately respond to requests for information on hospitalizations.

Columbia is one of 15 Florida prisons that have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks of at least 100 inmate cases. The prisons include Homestead Correctional Institution, with 302 cases; South Bay Correctional Facility, with 225 cases; Liberty Correctional Institution, with 215 cases, and Hamilton Correctional Institution, with 204 cases.

In total, 3,401 inmates across the state had tested positive for COVID-19 as of mid-day Thursday, and 30 prisoners had died from complications.

Over the past four weeks, the number of corrections workers known to be infected with COVID-19 has nearly tripled to 957. 

In response to infection surges among workers, corrections officials have launched emergency plans at two prisons --- Dade Correctional Institution and Jefferson Correctional Institution --- to address significant staffing shortages due to COVID-19. 

Since the emergency plans went into effect, a few more workers have tested positive at Dade and Jefferson. As of Thursday, Dade had 105 cases among staff members, while Jefferson had 25.