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Coronavirus kills one, infects another, in Florida sex offender treatment center

Residents of the Arcadia facility are held in confinement under the Jimmy Ryce Act, which forces sex offenders into treatment if experts believe they’re likely to commit another sex crime.

A resident in a sex offender treatment facility has died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Another resident is sick with the disease.

The outbreak is taking place in Florida’s Civil Commitment Center, a privately run treatment facility in DeSoto County for sex offenders held under the Jimmy Ryce Act. It is a civil law that allows a judge to order the indefinite involuntary commitment of those determined to be the most dangerous sex offenders.

The facility is located off State Road 70 in Arcadia, about 60 miles east of Sarasota. It is run by Wellpath Recovery Solutions, a Nashville healthcare company, through a contract with the Florida Department of Children and Families. Wellpath confirmed that a resident there has died and another resident is sick with COVID-19.

Tampa attorney Jeanine Cohen also confirmed that a client of hers died in the facility, but she declined to disclose his name because she wasn’t sure if his family had been notified.

She said the man who died had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an inflammatory lung condition, and was on oxygen. He got sick about the third week of March and spent 10 days in a hospital, including the intensive care unit. After that, he bounced between the hospital and the center as his condition worsened. He died Monday, Cohen said.

Cohen said facility officials told her he was tested three times for COVID-19. Two tests came back negative but one came back positive, she said. State data shows one death in DeSoto County — a 65-year-old man — on the day Cohen said her client died.

The 720-bed center isn’t a prison or jail, but it does have similarities to those institutions. It’s a secure facility where hundreds of people are living and working in a restrictive setting and have contact with each other in communal spaces. Civil rights advocates have warned that prisons and jails can easily become hotbeds for infection, and that has already started to play out in prisons across the country, including in Florida.

Related: COVID-19 cases soar at this Florida Panhandle prison

Cohen said she’s concerned that other residents will start getting sick, as will staff members, who could go on to infect family members and friends they come in contact with outside the center.

“It’s going to spread like wildfire," she said.

The facility’s medical staff is “prepared to care for COVID-19 residents inside appropriate isolation within our facilities, and we maintain relationships with local acute care facilities for those requiring a higher level of care,” said a statement from Judy Lilley, Wellpath’s vice president of corporate communications and public affairs.

“We are hopeful that the protective measures already implemented will help minimize the spread of the virus,” Lilley said.

She did not answer questions from the Tampa Bay Times about how the facility is handling residents and staff who may have come in contact with the deceased resident or what measures the facility took to prepare for coronavirus.

She also didn’t say how many residents live at the facility or how many employees work there. The facility housed 548 people in March 2019, according to a state report.

The Department of Children and Families referred all questions about the safety of the facility’s remaining residents and staff to Wellpath.

The Jimmy Ryce Act was named after a 9-year-old Miami-Dade county boy who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a ranchhand who was executed for the crime in 2014. It requires the state to evaluate every sex offender upon the end of their criminal sentence. The Department of Children and Families decides which ones to recommend for continued confinement and treatment. Then, if prosecutors agree with the recommendation, they file a petition for civil commitment in court.

From there, a judge or jury decides if the person fits the state definition for a sexually violent predator. That means they’ve been convicted of a sexually violent offense and have a “mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes the person likely to engage in acts of sexual violence,” according to the law.

Once someone is committed, they stay at the facility indefinitely. Each resident is entitled to an annual review and could be released if the courts find they’re no longer likely to commit another sex crime.

Cohen, a critic of the law because it continues to confine people who have already served their time, is concerned residents won’t be able to get timely testing and adequate care if the virus spreads through the facility.

“They served all their time. They’ve done every minute that they owe the state," she said. “This is not supposed to be about punishment or any type of retribution.”

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