But the public may never know it because the state has stopped the mass testing that showed prisons in Marion and Pickaway counties were the top COVID-19 hot spots in the nation.
Since Belmont’s first positive case of an inmate on April 13, 132 inmates and 66 staffers have tested positive, up from 30 inmates and one staff member just two weeks ago. And on Tuesday, Belmont reported its first COVID-19 fatality with the death of inmate Ronald Wanyerka, 62, of Cuyahoga County.
Statewide, 58 inmates and two prison employees have died.
Those on the front lines say the virus almost certainly is more widespread than reported because the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is no longer conducting widespread testing in prisons. Instead, the state is primarily testing inmates exhibiting symptoms of the disease.
Corrections officers at Belmont complain that they aren’t given adequate personal protection equipment, no longer have space to keep sick inmates apart from healthy ones, and are forced to go to a drive-through facility in nearby West Virginia to be tested themselves.
Scott Stevens, who has worked as a corrections officer at Belmont in St. Clairsville for 24 years and is chapter representative for the Ohio Civil Services Employees Association, the union representing 8,000 prison employees statewide, said Belmont consists of 10 dorm-style facilities, each housing more than 200 inmates who sleep in bunk beds and share kitchen and bathroom facilities.
Once five inmates in a facility test positive, the whole dorm is considered to have the coronavirus. But unless someone needs medical treatment, they remain in the dorm to recuperate, he said, adding that from one to five inmates are being sent to the hospital each day because their conditions have worsened.
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