Scrambling to address a COVID-19 outbreak that has seen 10 staff members confirmed and 32 inmates either confirmed or presumed to have the virus, the Moose Lake prison implemented a plan Wednesday to keep inmates away from others.

The "Stay with Unit" plan was announced in a Minnesota Department of Corrections news release, and will prevent inmates from intermingling as they would under normal operations — in the dining hall, educational programming, or facility industry or work opportunities.

“Our goal is to protect both staff and the people who are incarcerated in our facilities,” Commissioner Paul Schnell said. “The 'Stay with Unit' plans build on measures already implemented to minimize the potential for spread of COVID-19.”

Better social distancing is possible under the plan, Schnell said, in an effort to protect both staff and offenders, and reduce the potential for the prison facilities in Moose Lake and Willow River to add stress to local health care systems.

In addition to the nine inmate positives at the prison, it's presumed 23 other inmates have been infected per Minnesota Department of Health guidelines, which say people who present symptoms after having had close contact with a positive case are themselves presumed positive.

The facility said it has followed MDH guidance from the beginning. Among inmates confirmed with the virus, "these individuals have all experienced mild symptoms and do not require hospitalization," the news release said. Seven inmates have recovered, the state said.

"When there is a confirmed case through a test, we work with MDH to do contact tracing and quarantine and monitor people who had close contact with the confirmed case," corrections spokesperson Nicholas Kimball told the News Tribune. "If those individuals exhibit symptoms, per MDH protocol, those individuals are presumed positive and isolated the same as an individual confirmed positive through testing."

Last weekend, a 48-year-old male inmate died after collapsing in the shower. Kimball confirmed that an autopsy is being conducted, and that the deceased man posthumously tested negative for COVID-19.

Officials say the facility's age has hampered efforts to contain the outbreak. The oldest part of the facility has been in operation since 1938, first operating as a state hospital. The facility has operated as a prison since 1993.

"It is a complex and complicated environment with different living conventions, including single cells and group cells housing up to eight offenders," the news release said. "The facility has eight general living units and one segregation unit, with a total capacity of 1,075 beds."

As offenders are prevented from intermingling, staff have also stopped moving between units and facilities, Kimball said. It's possible there might be limited exceptions for staff, he added, specifically for health services. Willow River has one dedicated registered nurse, and there are three nurses total shared between the two facilities under normal circumstances.

Normally, the two sites operate as one facility, Kimball said.

“While we wanted to keep COVID-19 out of the facility, we planned for the likelihood that we would have cases here, just like communities have seen around the world," MCF-Moose Lake Warden Bill Bolin said.

The prison has taken significant steps to continuously disinfect the facility, ensure proper hygiene and help staff know how to protect their families when they go home, Bolin said.

A gymnasium is being set up as a step-down area for inmates who had COVID-19 symptoms but that have now been resolved. Per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, inmates will step down for seven days in the gym, and then return to the general population.

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