A widening coronavirus outbreak at the Fremont Correctional Facility near Cañon City has spiraled to become the state prison system’s second-largest on record, infecting 356 inmates and 24 workers, new data show.
Hundreds of new COVID-19 cases were reported at the prison Wednesday on the Colorado Department of Corrections website, a more than fourfold increase in the span of a week. State prison officials had warned that numbers could grow amid prisonwide testing launched after a single inmate tested positive for the virus Oct. 6.
That testing was expected to continue “for weeks” as efforts continue to gauge the impact on inmates and workers, officials said last week.
The virus has already infected more than a quarter of the Fremont County prison’s population of roughly 1,300 inmates, the largest outbreak at a state prison since coronavirus swept through Sterling Correctional Facility in northern Colorado beginning in mid-April, killing three inmates.
Annie Skinner, a state prison spokeswoman, said one inmate is being treated in a hospital and that the "vast majority" of those who tested positive have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.
"CDOC has brought in extra medical staff, including emergency medical response professionals, who are at the facility 24/7 to monitor inmates," Skinner said in a written statement.
Inmates held in isolation are being kept in their cells to stanch the virus’s spread, and all employees and inmates have been given KN95 masks, which will be replaced as needed, officials said. The prison is also limiting inmate transports to and from the facility. Cleaning has been stepped up and workers are tested for fevers each day as they arrive.
The facility is also organizing inmates into groups to reduce their exposure to others who may have the disease.
The new outbreak comes six months after the virus swept through the prison in Sterling, ultimately infecting 566 inmates amid reports of inadequate care. An 86-year-old inmate from Colorado Springs, retired Air Force Academy chaplain David Grosse, was among those who died, reportedly languishing in his cell while fellow inmates carried him to the bathroom, cleaned him and changed his sheets, The Gazette previously reported, citing accounts by three inmates. More than 70 prison workers at Sterling tested positive for coronavirus or were listed as “probable” for the disease.
The outbreak at Sterling was held up as an example of how quickly coronavirus can move through close quarters in the state’s prisons, and it was cited as a management failure in a pending class-action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado alleging “cruel and unusual punishment” for 7,000 medically vulnerable inmates, just less than half the state’s prison population of 16,000.
The next largest outbreak at a state prison was at Buena Vista Correctional Complex, where 213 inmates contracted the disease. State data shows that 198 inmates have since recovered.
The spread of the coronavirus at Fremont Correctional Facility comes days after Gov. Jared Polis urged Coloradans to “Step Up” and redouble efforts to wear masks and observe social distancing amid a resurgent pandemic that has filled upward of 400 hospital beds statewide, reviving warnings about the state’s capacity to provide critical care ahead of holiday gatherings that could sharpen risks.
A state database of coronavirus outbreaks in Colorado initially omitted the hundreds of inmates sickened at Fremont Correctional Facility this week until a Gazette reporter contacted state public health officials asking why.
State officials blamed a website delay involving its public database.
“We had the information — it just wasn't on the website yet,” said Gabi Johnston, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Public Health and Environment joint information center.
The agency's representatives have still not answered questions about when the details of the outbreak were communicated to the agency, though the outbreak was identified on Oct. 12.
Gazette reporter Evan Wyloge contributed to this story.