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Prison preps gym for COVID-19 cases

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The Blair County Prison has taken steps to prepare its gymnasium to house inmates with COVID-19 infections.

While no county inmate has tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday’s prison board meeting, some inmates are displaying symptoms, Warden Abbie Tate told the prison board.

“We avoided it for as long as we could and now it’s knocking on our door,” Tate said.

As of Thursday, the county prison had 16 full-time corrections officers absent from work because of COVID-19 exposure or potential exposure, including exposure through travel and quarantining as recommended.

Until those officers return to work, the prison is depending on fill-in officers to cover vacant shifts, Tate said.

Meanwhile, as inmates show signs of illness, Tate said they’re being segregated within prison housing areas, while going through the testing process.

“We’ve been blessed through this pandemic to have limited exposure so far,” prison board Chairman A.C. Stickel said.

To provide housing for inmates with COVID-19 infections, Tate said the county maintenance staff was called upon to build a shower and a makeshift office inside the gym.

The prison’s gym has been used for inmate housing before. Last winter, it was the housing unit for inmates with the flu. Before that, it was used for housing when the prison’s population climbed and more beds were needed.

The Pennsylvania Prison Society, in an update issued Thursday, said it knew of eight county prisons reporting COVID-19 cases in the past month. That would have included the Blair County Prison where a staff member reported testing positive for COVID-19 in mid-October.

It also includes the Huntingdon County Prison which closed in mid-October. After inmates and staff exhibited coronavirus symptoms, the county arranged to move 35 inmates to the Centre County Correctional Facility, which had space to separately house Huntingdon County’s inmates, at a cost of $65 per day per inmate.

Tate also reported to the prison board that in addition to making plans for the gymnasium, arrangements also have been made to access more personal protective equipment as needed. She said the Veterans Affairs office and the county’s Emergency Management Agency have been helpful in securing PPE.

The prison, as of Thursday, was housing 278 inmates, with about 40 awaiting transfer to a state prison, reports show.

The state prison system is accepting inmates from county prisons, Tate said, as long as those inmates don’t have COVID-19.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.

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