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story.lead_photo.caption The Federal Correctional Complex outside Forrest City in a January 25, 2008 file photo. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

Ten inmates at the federal prison in Forrest City have tested positive for coronavirus and at least 15 to 20 more have exhibited symptoms, Arkansas officials said on Sunday.

Four staff members have also tested positive, and another 10 to 15 employees have had "significant exposures," according to Arkansas Department of Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith, who provided the update at the governor's covid-19 briefing on Sunday afternoon.

The coronavirus outbreak in the Forrest City complex is the largest at any correctional facility -- federal or state -- located in Arkansas. And the number of confirmed covid-19 cases at the complex is poised to grow as the prison tests more inmates and employees.

Smith said a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been invited to assist with the outbreak in Forrest City. "They should be arriving early this week, and they will be bringing laboratory support for us, as well," Smith said.

The state has recommended to prison officials that they separate inmates who are showing symptoms of infection from the other inmates, Smith said.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

"As you can imagine, that's quite challenging in that setting and that's why we've asked our partners at the CDC to come and assist," Smith said. "We don't always have the easy access to a federal facility that we have to a state facility but we've been providing guidance and so far the folks out there have been following that guidance. Obviously, we need to test more than we have tested and take additional measures to stop the spread."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson shared the news on NBC's Meet the Press earlier in the day, when he said a total of 14 people in Forrest City's prison had tested positive. (At the briefing, Smith said 12 people had tested positive; a Department of Health spokeswoman, Danyelle McNeill, later clarified that the governor's numbers were accurate and Smith was reporting the 12 new cases in the facility on top of two cases reported previously.)

The latest numbers show an escalating outbreak in Forrest City compared with last week, when the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on Friday that two inmates at the Forrest City prison had tested positive for coronavirus.

A media representative for the Forrest City prison on Sunday declined to comment to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, deferring to federal media liaisons in Washington. Emails to the Bureau of Prisons' public affairs office were not returned.

A Bureau of Prisons website tracking coronavirus cases in the federal system listed an "X" where the inmate coronavirus count was supposed to be for two Forrest City prison facilities as of Sunday. In federal prisons across the nation, 138 inmates and 59 staff members have tested positive for the virus, according to the bureau's website.

The Forrest City prison consists of medium, low and minimum-security facilities, with a total population of 3,255 inmates, according to the website.

So far, there have been no reported covid-19 cases among inmates at Arkansas Department of Corrections facilities, according to a spokeswoman for the department, Dina Tyler, but the state agency has tested only two inmates. Results for the two inmates who met the criteria for testing both came back negative, she said.

Two nonsecurity employees who work at a Department of Corrections facility and two additional employees who do not work at a facility remain in quarantine after testing positive for covid-19, Tyler said in an email Sunday evening.

When asked at the briefing whether he is considering any actions to release incarcerated people in light of the virus, Hutchinson said some counties have taken action to release inmates from jail, but from the state perspective, "there's not any plan to do any release because of the covid-19 crisis."

"We have certainly taken the steps to protect the population and measures that we're watching every day, and if it changes and there is an outbreak, then we'll have to make judgments moment by moment," Hutchinson said. "But there's not any way that you can release particularly the violent offenders that are there, and many others."

He emphasized that the outbreak in Forrest City is happening inside a federal prison, not an Arkansas facility.

Metro on 04/06/2020

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