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Infection: Prison cases create a new challenge

If state officials manage to avoid a mini-epidemic at the West Virginia prison where, it was announced last week, four people had tested positive for COVID-19, they will pull off something of a miracle. A prison is an unusually friendly place for a virus looking to spread.

After weathering two months of the coronavirus pandemic without recording any cases, the state prison system finally succumbed. Last Wednesday, it was revealed two inmates and two employees at the Huttonsville Correctional Center in Randolph County had tested positive for the disease.

Corrections and public health officials managing to keep COVID-19 out of jails and prisons for so long is a testament to the effectiveness of preventive measures. But once this enemy is inside the gates, the way is open for it to go on a rampage.

Folks living just a bit up the Ohio River from here know that all too well. The Belmont Correctional Institution near St. Clairsville, Ohio, has suffered three inmate deaths because of COVID-19. Seventy-six employees and 141 inmates tested positive for the disease, though of those numbers, 23 staff members and 60 prisoners have recovered.

Perhaps, with experience and information Ohio prison authorities lacked when COVID-19 invaded their facilities, West Virginia corrections officials can be more effective in controlling the disease at Huttonsville. Let us hope — because, while the health of inmates certainly is important, a prison outbreak threatens the entire surrounding community. Some of the Northern Panhandle and East Ohio cases reported were traced to contact with BCI staff members.

Gov. Jim Justice and other state officials have done an excellent job combating COVID-19, in many respects. The disease’s incursion into a prison is one more test. Avoiding a significant outbreak in Randolph and surrounding counties may well depend on conquering this new challenge.

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