CASPER — A health official said Thursday that at least two inmates at the Wind River Reservation’s jail had tested positive for the coronavirus, making it the first known outbreak of the illness among multiple inmates at a correctional facility in Wyoming.
The two inmates who tested positive in the last couple of days have been released and moved to a site the two Wind River tribes set up in Arapahoe for the area’s transient population to self-isolate or quarantine, said Dr. Paul Ebbert, Chief Medical Officer of the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s Wind River Family and Community Healthcare.
The jail is operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Leslie Shakespeare, the Wind River Agency Superintendent, referred questions to a BIA spokesperson Thursday. BIA officials didn’t respond to emails requesting comment on Thursday.
Ebbert said he wasn’t clear on further details, like any precautions the jail had taken in light of the outbreak or whether staff and inmates had been tested. He said any testing would have been conducted by the Indian Health Service.
But he said both inmates were doing fine; one had COVID-19 symptoms but wasn’t seriously sick and the other is asymptomatic but has underlying health problems that raise the risk for serious side effects of the virus.
Some, like the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming, have warned that correctional facilities are vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses like COVID-19 due to close living quarters and, in many cases, little access to soap and cleaning supplies.
So far, confirmed cases of the virus at correctional facilities in Wyoming have been limited to a staff member at the women’s prison in Lusk. That staff member has since recovered, according to WyoFile.
An inmate at the Natrona County Regional Juvenile Detention Center also tested positive for the virus.
The outbreak at the correctional facility also comes on a reservation that has seen a significant number of Wyoming’s cases, mainly due to an aggressive testing program that has completed about one-third of the state’s testing, Ebbert said.
More than 31 percent of the state’s cases have come from those who identify as American Indian, according to state data as of Thursday afternoon. Ebbert said that can be attributed to the mass testing and contact tracing the tribes have conducted and not an outbreak that is any worse than other spots throughout the state.
According to 2019 census estimates, Wyoming’s population is 2.7 percent American Indian/Alaska Native. As of Thursday afternoon, state officials had reported 667 confirmed and 209 probable cases, with 15 deaths — six among Northern Arapaho tribal citizens.
Aggressive contact tracing has helped to limit community spread of the virus, Ebbert said, adding that the two tribes are seeing fewer people with cases that officials can’t tie to someone else.
Despite that, he said he doesn’t believe the outbreak has peaked on the reservation, though it may have plateaued.
“It’s still spreading. People need not relax,” he said, urging tribal citizens to continue to follow public health recommendations, like social distancing and wearing a mask when in public, meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Ebbert said the disproportionate number of deaths among the state’s Indigenous population could likely be attributed to factors — like higher rates of existing health problems and crowded housing situations – that make many Indigenous people more vulnerable to death and other complications from the virus.
“We have more chronic disease,” he said. “We have overcrowding.”
Besides testing, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes have taken other aggressive steps, like instituting a curfew and a stay-at-home order punishable by jail time or a fine to minimize the number of members who contract the virus or are sickened by it.
While most have obeyed the order, tribal leaders have repeatedly said that younger tribal citizens have disregarded it, endangering elders or family members who might be at higher risk for developing serious complications from the virus. Tribal leaders extended the order until further notice earlier this month.
“The frustrating part is our young people,” said Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter in an interview last week. “Look, you’ve got to stay home.”