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State ramps up containment efforts at nursing homes, won’t release inmates over coronavirus concerns

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — State health officials issued an order Tuesday authorizing the relocation and discharge of long-term care facility residents.

The enhanced effort to protect some vulnerable Hoosiers was announced Tuesday afternoon during a virtual Statehouse briefing.

Dr. Kris Box, the state health commissioner, addressed controversy sparked by previous nursing home transfers and defended the order as “scientifically sound.”

“I know that the thought of moving residents in an already difficult time is incredibly stressful for families and we’ve made it clear that families need to be notified of these plans,” she said.

The new measures allow health officials to develop “COVID-dedicated units” at long-term care facilities, a containment strategy that would slow the spread of coronavirus while also improving quality of life among infected residents, according to Box.

Individuals living in any “congregate setting” — including prisons, nursing homes, group homes and other residential or long-term care facilities — are at increased risk of COVID-19 exposure and remain the focus of targeted testing, she added.

Gov. Eric Holcomb responded with three words when asked during the same press conference if he would authorize the early release of nonviolent prison inmates.

“It is not [something I’m planning on doing],” the governor said.

Hours earlier, health officials had been notified of Indiana’s first confirmed coronavirus-related death within the state prison system.

A male inmate over the age of 70 died Monday at a LaPorte County hospital after complaining of chest pain and trouble breathing, according to the Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC).

The unidentified man had been incarcerated at Westville Correctional Facility, a medium-security IDOC facility with a population of approximately 3,200.

State health officials will provide targeted assistance to the IDOC throughout Indiana’s public health emergency, Box said.

Jessica Smith, a Columbus, Ind. resident, called for Holcomb to review prison protocol during the pandemic.

Her fiance, Nathan Lee, is approximately halfway through a six-month sentence for a nonviolent crime at Heritage Trail Correctional Facility in Plainfield, she told News 8.

Inmates at the minimum-security facility operated by the GEO Group do not have reliable access to hand sanitizer and are often placed in situations that violate physical distancing guidelines, Smith claimed.

“They only have access to hand sanitizer if they order it from [the prison] commissary,” Smith said, adding Lee had witnessed guards punishing other inmates for wearing face coverings. 

“Why not let the ones that are not violent offenders [and] the ones that don’t have much time left out on work release or house arrest?” she asked. “They’re people, too… They’re not being treated like it.”

IDOC representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment from News 8.

Federal authorities are “reviewing all inmates who have COVID-19 risk factors, as described by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], to determine which inmates are suitable for home confinement,” the Federal Bureau of Prisons said Tuesday in a Tweet.

Jessica Smith worries about fiance Nathan Lee’s health and safety at Heritage Trail Correctional Facility in Plainfield. (Photo: Jessica Smith)