As many as 836 inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Moose Lake could be expected to come down with symptoms of COVID-19.
That is according to Dr. Susan Hasti, a family doctor and faculty member at Hennepin Healthcare, in a sworn declaration submitted in a lawsuit seeking the release of inmates from the prison that has been called the "epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota correctional facilities."
According to Hasti's projections, approximately 117 of those inmates would need to be hospitalized. Roughly 41 would require intubation.
That could bring "devastating effects" to the local health care system, which includes just 102 beds — and only six for intensive care — between the Moose Lake and Cloquet hospitals, according to the complaint filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and the state public defender's office.
"Lack of appropriate containment and mitigation measures from just one of our state prisons has potential for far-ranging and dire burdens on our state health systems and their ability to respond to this emergency," Hasti said. "The multiplier effect from the spread (from Moose Lake alone) could easily overwhelm the state."
As of Thursday, 13 Moose Lake inmates had tested positive, with another 31 presumed to have the virus. Ten were no longer requiring isolation. At least 10 workers also have tested positive.
The Minnesota Department of Correction's Willow River Challenge Incarceration Program, a minimum-security boot camp that operates under the same umbrella as Moose Lake, had three confirmed cases and six presumed. Those are the only prisons in the state where the virus has been confirmed; the DOC said only two cases so far have required hospitalization.
But the rapid spread of the highly contagious disease within prison walls could quickly move to outside communities, attorneys and health officials warned in statements filed in support of the lawsuit.
"This is not just a prisoners' rights or correctional staff issue," the complaint states. "Prisons and jails are not hermetically sealed. Once the virus enters a detention center, the regular movement of staff in and out of the facility means that the virus will spread back to the community. Whether COVID-19 cases occur in detention centers or in the community, they exacerbate the strain on the healthcare system throughout the communities in which they are located."
Moose Lake has approximately 1,050 inmates. The complaint states that officials have discontinued testing because the virus has been confirmed in each of the prison's units. It also alleges that inmates have been required to share showers and other facilities with those who have tested positive, accelerating the spread.
The DOC didn't immediately respond to a list of questions from the News Tribune on Thursday, but Commissioner Paul Schnell said Wednesday that the agency was continuing efforts to implement early release options to the degree allowed by law.
The petition for release was filed by three Moose Lake inmates on behalf of themselves and others who meet certain criteria — particularly those who are older and/or have existing health issues, as well as those with less than six months left to serve, are not considered a danger to the public and have a safe place to isolate in the community.
Many physicians consider jails, prisons and treatment facilities to be a "tinderbox" for a COVID-19 outbreak because of their large population density and the ease of transmission, according to Dr. Lynne Ogawa, medical director of the St. Paul-Ramsey County Department of Public Health.
The lawsuit claims that a continued outbreak could force the movement of inmates requiring care to hospitals around the state, further spreading the virus.
"Detained individuals with underlying medical conditions are at a high risk of developing a severe disease that requires emergency medical care," Ogawa said in a declaration. "It is in the public interest to minimize the health risk inherent to the spread of COVID-19."
The case has been assigned to 6th Judicial District Judge David Johnson of Duluth. No hearing dates have been scheduled.