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Louisiana Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, left, speaks at a briefing of media members on the state's current situation dealing with the novel coronavirus COVID-19 public health threat, addressing a program that will evaluate some prisoners for possible furlough to allow better social distancing of inmates, as Gov. John Bel Edwards, right, listens on April 14.

The rapid spread of coronavirus through a Louisiana prison earlier this month prompted corrections officials to test all inmates and staff there — the latest example of mass testing in state correctional facilities that has revealed widespread infection rates and a high percentage of asymptomatic cases.

The first confirmed case at Allen Correctional Center surfaced July 1. Less than three weeks later, that number had swelled to 67, according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections.

Officials said that's when they decided to start mass testing.

As of this week, the entire prison population and staff have been tested — more than 900 people. Most of the test results are still pending, but already the prison has recorded 148 asymptomatic cases and 34 symptomatic. 

Census tract data released by state public health officials shows a spike in local cases for Allen Parish, from 181 last week to 336 this week.

DOC officials said they've also recently conducted mass testing among about 600 medically vulnerable inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, including those housed in the prison's assisted living wings. That's more than half the 900 total tests that have been administered since the pandemic infiltrated the state's massive maximum security prison, which houses almost 6,000 inmates, many of them serving life sentences.

Officials said that population was tested because they're at high risk of severe illness or death from the virus. Of the 594 tests administered, 38 came back positive for inmates who were not experiencing symptoms.

Experts have long called for larger scale mass testing efforts in correctional settings, where living conditions make it almost impossible to contain the virus. The 12 largest coronavirus clusters in the country now are in jails and prisons, according to data tracked by the New York Times.

Those numbers are directly related to how much testing is occurring in those facilities. 

It's not clear whether Louisiana corrections leaders plan to ultimately bring mass testing to all their prison facilities. The department has mostly focused on testing inmates who show symptoms, and DOC spokesman Ken Pastorick didn't answer questions about the test supply and its possible limitations.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards recommended mass testing in correctional facilities and nursing homes back in April. Pastorick said the department plans to conduct mass testing at Rayburn Correctional Center in Washington Parish next.

The recent testing at Allen Correctional Center and Angola follows an early push to test almost the entire female state prison population amid widespread outbreaks in two women's facilities. Those results showed about 85% of the 200 women in one prison building tested positive, though about three quarters of them were asymptomatic.

That testing adding to existing evidence that the virus spreads silently in congregate settings. 

The female inmates were also living in even closer quarters than usual because the state's only prison for women flooded in 2016 and hasn't been rebuilt. Some of their current dorms have 70 women sharing three toilets and four sinks, sleeping in bunks about an arm's length apart.

Most of women who tested positive have now recovered, with just two confirmed cases left, DOC officials said this week.

At least 17 state prison inmates and five DOC staff members have died from coronavirus over the past few months.

State officials have done little to reduce the prison population during the pandemic despite advice from experts who contend that's the most effective way to limit outbreaks behind bars.

DOC leaders created a prisoner furlough program, but it was was suspended after several weeks. And, of the 600 cases considered for furlough, just 63 received early release — about 0.2% of the Louisiana prison population. 


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.