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150 inmates test positive for coronavirus at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution

The Florida Department of Corrections has taken additional steps to curb the outbreak.

Nearly 25 percent of the inmate population in the Tampa Bay area’s largest state prison facility has tested positive for COVID-19.

The Florida Department of Corrections confirmed in a news release Wednesday that 150 inmates at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution in Pasco County had tested positive for the coronavirus. The release came after an inquiry from the Tampa Bay Times about reports of illness in the facility.

The prison, which sits off U.S. 301 in east Pasco County, houses 625 state prisoners. It is one of a handful of Florida prisons that services a large population of elderly inmates. Two dorms on its campus are specifically designed for the elderly and those with complex medical needs.

“The great majority of inmates at Zephyrhills C.I. who have tested positive presented mild or no symptoms of the virus when they were tested,” the department’s news release stated. “All inmates continue to be provided with ongoing medical care and monitoring by facility health care professionals who follow CDC guidelines for the prevention, evaluation, treatment and management of COVID-19. Working in tandem with security staff, they are ensuring that inmates receive the care they need while still fulfilling FDC’s important public safety mission.”

With the outbreak, Zephyrhills corrections officials are providing all services and meals to inmates within their respective housing units, the release said. Inmates receive daily temperature checks. The department has activated “institutional response teams,” and has done “broad-based testing” at the prison.

Staff and inmates are required to wear cloth face-coverings, the release stated. Inmates who tested positive have been placed in medical isolation.

The department’s online COVID-19 statistics show that 44 staff members at the Zephyrhills prison have tested positive since March 2020. It’s unclear how many may currently be sick.

Outgoing Hillsborough School Board member Tamara Shamburger has a brother at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution. Shamburger told the Times that her brother is among those who have tested positive.

“My mom and I, we’ve had a hard time getting information, so I’ve had to turn to some of our legislators to see if they can get help,” Shamburger said. “I think they’re keeping all the sick ones together in the library and in different places on campus.”

State Rep. Dianne Hart, who has championed criminal justice issues, said Thursday that she had not previously heard about the Zephyrhills outbreak and was seeking answers.

Allie Bessette, a Zephyrhills inmate, described a dire situation in a series of emails to the Times.

”They gutted the chapel to house some of the sick,” he wrote. “They brought in portable showers and toilets on trucks. Confinement is full.”

Each day, corrections officers take a few inmates out of their dorms for isolation, Bessette said, but others with whom they’ve had contact are left behind.

“I’ve heard my neighbor plead ‘I have asthma I don’t feel good,’” he wrote. “At temperature check I’m right behind him. I told the nurse he is sick. The nurse said ‘I know’ and left. People are scared.”

Since the coronavirus emerged, it has spread widely through the state’s prison system, where social distancing and other preventative measures are not always practical. As of Wednesday, the department’s statistics showed a total of 17,208 inmates had tested positive this year.

In an email late Thursday, a department spokeswoman noted that statewide, 97 percent of inmates who tested positive have since been cleared from medical isolation. Likewise, 94 percent of staffers who have tested positive have been cleared to return to work. A majority of the inmates who test positive are asymptomatic, the spokeswoman said.

The department has tallied 189 inmates who have died from COVID-19.

The pandemic has forced a decline in the overall prison population as courts statewide grapple with a backlog of thousands of felony cases due to court closures. State analysts last month pegged Florida’s prison population at 82,027 inmates. In July 2019, the prison system had a total of 95,626 inmates.

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