By TIM CARPENTER
TOPEKA — The largest COVID-19 outbreak in a Kansas Department of Corrections facility is in Norton where at least 135 inmates and 11 staff members recently tested positive for the virus, officials said Tuesday.
Coronavirus has been detected in nearly 3,000 inmates within Kansas’ state prison system this year, but the surge at Norton Correctional Facility corresponded with disclosure of the hotspot at Andbe Home in Norton where 10 residents of the nursing home have died. All 52 other residents of Andbe Home testing positive for COVID-19 have been quarantined there with exception of one hospitalized patient, officials said.
“The community infected the facility,” said Randy Bowman, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections. “It spreads in the facility once it’s in.”
Data collected by Johns Hopkins University showed Norton County had the largest number of new cases per 100,000 residents in the United States during the two-week period ending Sunday.
Kansas Department of Health and Environment said Monday that Norton County had 340 cases of COVID-19, but that likely didn’t include all positive tests emerging from the nursing home. Overall in Kansas, KDHE has documented 872 deaths, 3,421 hospitalizations and 72,968 cases of COVID-19.
The total of 135 cases among inmates at the 850-bed prison in Norton surpassed the 103 cases reported at Hutchinson Correctional Facility and the 80 cases at Ellsworth Correctional Facility. Lansing Correctional Facility has been a magnet for coronavirus with 974 known inmate cases.
Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections said a 60-year-old inmate at the Ellsworth prison died Monday after testing positive Sept. 26. The Black man was serving a life sentence out of Wyandotte County. After testing positive, he was transferred to the COVID-19 management unit at Lansing Correctional Facility before moved several days later to a hospital.
Since March, six Kansas prison inmates and three of the state’s corrections employees have died of coronavirus. There have been four inmate fatalities at Lansing and one death at Larned Correctional Facility. In terms of prison staff, two deaths occurred among workers at Lansing and one at Topeka Correctional Facility.
The state corrections department reported that as of Oct. 14 there were 422 inmates and 43 employees with cases of COVID-19. During the pandemic, testing has identified 1,955 inmate and 344 staff cases of infection by the coronavirus.
Jeff Zmuda, secretary at the Department of Corrections, said in a letter to inmates and family members that spread of the virus in Kansas communities and inside prison facilities would preclude a prompt return to regular visition opportunites.
“We continue to explore options for visitation,” Zmuda said. “Some states have reopened visitation, a smaller number have also closed again and others have not. Each of which provide examples for us.”
He said future visitation policy at Kansas prisons would likely include a prohibition on physical contact. Plexiglass barriers, distance limits among participants and screening of all people taking part in the visits would be combined with launch of an online advance scheduling process and a reduction in the number of allowable visits each day, he said.
“Given the prevalence of the virus in our communities and in our facilities today I cannot estimate when we could implement a new visitation process,” the secretary said.
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.