Arkansas prison hit by COVID-19 outbreak offers guidance as state plans to reopen

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The comparisons between prison life and real life are obviously problematic, but a COVID-19 prison outbreak at the Cummins Unit has helped guide Arkansas public health officials in how to gradually reopen the state in two weeks.

Governor Asa Hutchinson began delineating positive cases by whether they came in the general public or in “congregate settings.” Those words are meant to describe environments where groups of people live in close contact. A nursing home is an example, as is a prison.

“Of the 142 new cases, 117 of those cases were in the prison system which is Cummins,” the governor said Monday during his daily briefing. He pointed to a bar graph denoting daily new infections. “The top part of [each bar] in white reflects what is in the congregate environment: which is the prison system.”

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In eight days’ time, at least 600 inmates at Cummins have tested positive. The ADC says the entire complex houses up to 1,876 inmates, but that some outlying units have been unaffected. About 1,000 tests were sent to a lab in Memphis for quick processing and about 250 remain outstanding.

The nature of the outbreak provides a real-life lab for the state’s top doc when it comes to COVID-19. The State Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said he learned three things since the first case cropped up there.

“We learned how rapidly COVID-19 can spread within a communal living setting,” he said, offering clues to his directives that summer camps likely won’t be able to open later this year.

“A lot of people can be infected and asymptomatic,” Dr. Smith said. “We knew that from our nursing home outbreaks, but we didn’t know that the same would be true for a younger generally healthier population.

That could be reassuring as more and more healthy people emerge when stay-at-home orders start to lift.

But there’s also a big difference between prisons and hometowns.

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“It’s the toughest place to control an outbreak but also the easiest,” said Dr. Smith, pointing to the control officials have over where inmates can be placed and moved as the virus spreads.

Freedom to roam will create more of a puzzle when it comes to public health.

The governor stressed that social distancing is sticking around even if things start to reopen on the target date of May 4. For now, he is urging people to keep that in mind in the face of hundreds of prison positives.

“It’s something we’ll watch very carefully. It’s one factor among many as we make our decisions for the future,” the governor said.