Gov. Lee announces mass COVID-19 testing in all Tennessee prisons following latest outbreak

Staff file photo by Tim Barber / A corrections guard stands on the yard at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in this 2012 file photo.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced Friday the state is launching mass COVID-19 testing for all prison inmates and staff in its system following test results at a privately operated state prison revealed half of 2,450 people there tested positive for the coronavirus.

"Knowing the extent of the virus's spread within our correctional facilities is critical as incarcerated individuals remain one of the most vulnerable populations during this pandemic," the Republican governor said in a news release.

Lee said that "thanks to our increased capacity, we'll test all inmates and staff statewide in order to take appropriate actions to safeguard the health of these vulnerable individuals."

The decision to test an estimated 26,000 inmates held in its entire prison system as well as an unknown number of workers comes on the heels of the governor's announcement earlier in the week the state will conduct testing at all 700 long-term facilities following earlier mass outbreaks in nursing homes in Athens and in Gallatin.

The extent of major problems at the CoreCivic-run Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Trousdale County became clear in targeted testing that began at the prison this week after 93 prisoners tested positive for the coronavirus.

That came on the heels of COVID-19 cases at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex near Pikeville, where earlier this week 583 inmates were found to be positive.

Stuart McWhorter, who is director of Lee's Unified Command Group, said the emergency organization had "been in close coordination with TDOC as it began targeted COVID-19 testing of inmates and staff in early April. Given the increases in positive cases at the Bledsoe County and Trousdale Turner correctional facilities, despite the vast majority being asymptomatic, we are going to take the next steps in partnership with TDOC, Tennessee Department of Health (TDH), and Tennessee National Guard to support a broader testing strategy to promote the health and safety of staff and inmates."

McWhorter said "we will also coordinate plans with our local jails to assist them in safeguarding the health of their populations in the coming days."

TDOC and Tennessee Department of Health analysis of the test results confirmed 98 percent of those who tested positive are asymptomatic.

While CoreCivic will be responsible for testing all inmates and staff in its managed facilities, Lee's Unified Command Group will coordinate with the Tennessee National Guard to augment testing capacity for staff at state-run facilities, where Centurion will be testing only inmates.

TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker said the department "is taking a proactive approach to ensure all staff and the entire inmate population is tested for COVID-19. Our sixth round of mass testing will begin early next week, with the remaining 10 facilities conducting testing."

He said under Lee the state "is leading the nation in our approach to widespread mass testing."

Following Lee's announcement earlier this week that the state would test all 60,000 to 70,000 residents and some 70,000 workers at 700 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, President Donald Trump invited the governor to appear with him Thursday at a White House conference where the president praised Lee, touted his administration's efforts for seniors amid the COVID-19 outbreak as well as helping states and signed a proclamation declaring May "Older Americans Month."

This is a developing story. Stay with the Times Free Press for updates.

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