Idaho inmates worked at food plants. They got COVID. So did their bunkmates.

A total of 382 men and women got infected at five IDOC facilities

By: - April 22, 2021 2:41 pm
Idaho Department of Correction facilities

A new CDC report tracks outbreaks of COVID-19 at five Idaho correctional facilities where inmates worked at businesses in the community. (Photos: Idaho Department of Correction)

Idaho inmates who worked in the community likely got COVID-19 at those jobs and brought the coronavirus back into their correctional facilities and dorms.

A new report published Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes how COVID-19 outbreaks tied to workplaces, such as Idaho food processing plants, may have seeded outbreaks in several Idaho Department of Correction facilities.

By the end of November, the coronavirus had infected a total of 382 people incarcerated at five Idaho correctional facilities with work-release programs, the report says. Two of the outbreaks were linked to food processing plants where inmates worked.

The inmates were housed at IDOC facilities in Nampa, Caldwell, Boise, Idaho Falls and St. Anthony, according to IDOC.

Infected with COVID-19 at a Southwest Idaho food plant

The report describes how some of those outbreaks unfolded.

The first COVID-19 case in a Nampa correctional facility was identified on July 14. The patient was an inmate who worked at a local food processing plant, the report says.

That plant already had a COVID-19 outbreak identified among its staff, but IDOC didn’t know about the outbreak — until public health officials told IDOC about it on July 22, the report says.

“Subsequent (Idaho Department of Health and Welfare) guidance recommended that correctional facilities require work-release sites to notify them of COVID-19 cases among employees,” the report says.

Among other efforts to stop the spread, the Nampa correctional facility underwent mass testing for COVID-19. Patients were isolated, and their close contacts were quarantined.

A total of 75 inmates there eventually contracted COVID-19. (The facility houses up to 115 men.) That included 59 who worked at businesses in the community through the work-release program. Of those, 12 worked at the food processing plant, five at a car dealership, four at a different food processing plant, four at a manufacturing facility, and 34 worked at 25 other businesses, the report says.

IDOC Director: CDC report shows ‘unique challenges’ of pandemic

The study, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, says one of the key takeaways is that correctional facilities with work-release programs “should implement measures to reduce (coronavirus) transmission, including mass testing and working with public health officials to identify high-risk work sites.”

Headquarters of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Photo by James Gathany, CDC)

It also says inmates who work out in the community “should be included in COVID-19 vaccination plans.”

Hundreds of cases of COVID-19 have been tied to food processing plants in Idaho, according to data gathered by the Idaho Statesman.

IDOC Director Josh Tewalt told the Idaho Capital Sun in an emailed statement that the report highlights the “unique challenges associated with the pandemic response” as well as the “importance of a coordinated, collaborative statewide response” to COVID-19.

Tewalt said IDOC is grateful to the CDC, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Boise VA and public health departments in the Treasure Valley and East Idaho.

“We continue to learn through this process, and we’re hopeful this article will help others learn from the successes and difficulties of our coordinated pandemic response,” Tewalt said in the statement.

The report also revealed some new information about outbreaks in Idaho’s prisons.

According to the report, five Idaho inmates died of causes related to COVID-19 and 18 were hospitalized last year, as of Nov. 30.

The researchers who authored the CDC report include Idaho public health and corrections officials and staff.

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Dutton hails from Twin Falls. She attended college at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.