Judge wants all staff tested for COVID-19 at Texas prison with outbreak

The judge also asked for a daily report, including how many inmates and staff tested positive and have recovered


By Kaley Johnson
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

TARRANT COUNTY, Texas — Tarrant County officials want every staff member at a Fort Worth federal prison tested for coronavirus due to an outbreak among inmates.

At FMC Fort Worth, 641 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 in the past month and a half, according to union president and corrections officer Gregory Watts. Five inmates have died from the virus.

Three staff members have tested positive, one of whom has returned to work. That staff member originally tested negative for the virus and continued to work, but tested positive a week later, Watts said.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said he was surprised by the prison’s jump in numbers over the weekend, and demanded the approximately 300 staff members be tested for the virus.

“I’m not saying offer (the test). We want them to be tested,” Whitley said at a county commissioners’ meeting Tuesday.

The prison reported 423 of its coronavirus cases to Tarrant County health officials on Friday and Saturday, although on Friday, the prison had at least 547 confirmed cases.

On Sunday, the county included the 423 prison cases in its daily roundup of cases. That day, the prison told the county the number had jumped to 636.

Prior to those numbers, Whitley said, the prison was not communicating consistently with county officials about their cases.

“We weren’t getting numbers,” Whitley said. “It was ridiculous.”

The Bureau of Prisons and FMC Fort Worth administrators did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Watts said he believes there is a delay in information that is reported to the BOP, and he was not sure how the prison was reporting numbers to the county.

The prison mass-tested three units that showed evidence of widespread infection. Last week, about 300 inmates were tested inside the Austin unit, and Watts said on May 7 that they expected cases to increase substantially over the weekend once those results came back.

Testing for officers

The county has no authority over the federal prison or its staff, but Whitley hopes the approximately 300 staff members will take advantage of free, county-provided testing.

He also wants a daily report from the prison on how many inmates and staff were tested, how many tested positive and how many have recovered.

Tarrant County also asked U.S. Rep. Kay Granger to step in and put pressure on the prison to communicate with the county.

“We just asked her to see if she could help get better communications and she did, she helped get in there and say let’s begin to talk more,” Whitley said.

On Thursday, the prison’s union coordinated with Tarrant County Public Health to set up testing at a park behind the prison and about 100 staff members showed up to be tested. Watts said those test results were expected to be in by the end of the day Tuesday.

A second voluntary testing session is scheduled Wednesday morning and afternoon for staff.

On Monday, Tarrant County Public Health Director Vinny Taneja attended an in-person meeting at the prison with officials from the prison, John Peter Smith Hospital, the UNT Health Science Center and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The biggest concern about the prison outbreak is that staff at the prison will spread the virus to the general public, Whitley and Taneja said at the county commission meeting Tuesday.

“Many folks are asymptomatic, but that almost is worse,” Taneja told reporters after the meeting. “Maybe some of those guards are sick and they’re not feeling any symptoms, but they’re out there and they’re spreading the virus.”

On Thursday, Chief Union Steward Cheri Reibe said staff were being extremely careful while working and when they leave the prison. They wear N95 respirator masks inside the prison and limit cross-contamination between floors, she said. Some have not been staying with their families or not visiting relatives.

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©2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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