ALAMOGORDO, N.M. (AP) — About 80% of inmates at the Otero County prison in southern New Mexico have tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said.
The outbreak started in early May when officials learned a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
“We asked that individual to be removed from shift, and then we traced their activity,” state Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero said. More than 400 inmates tested positive and three have died.
The prison also holds inmates serving time on federal convictions, mostly related to drugs. There were 275 positive cases among those inmates, officials said.
The percentage of federal prisoners infected with COVID-19 is unclear because population numbers were not released by private operator Management and Training Corp. The corporation runs both parts of the facility and an adjacent Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center.
The state Department of Corrections and state Department of Health held a joint news conference Wednesday to discuss measures being taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus in Otero County and its other 10 prisons.
Those measures included testing and quarantining all incoming prisoners at the Central Correctional Facility in Los Lunas for 14 days before placing them in any other state prisons, as well as doubling inmates’ weekly issuance of hygiene and cleansing products.
Management and Training Corp. did not immediately respond to a request for comment but had previously said it was working to implement health guidelines.
Controlling outbreaks in close-quarter facilities such as prisons is problematic, epidemiologist Chad Smelser said.
"It’s efficient at moving around in populations, and it’s particularly good at the congregate setting such as this,” he said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.
When the pandemic was declared, the American Civil Liberties Union and criminal defense attorneys began calling for the state to reduce inmate populations in hopes of preventing a potential outbreak.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the corrections secretary ejected that strategy. Instead, the governor ordered the release of a small group of inmates who fit specific criteria and are within 30 days of their release dates. About 71 inmates have been released since April.