Hundreds of North Carolina state prisoners with COVID-19 are now deemed to have recovered based on government health guidelines.
The state Department of Public Safety calculated that more than 500 of the over 640 offenders testing positive for the new coronavirus meet criteria to be released from medical isolation.
Most of the prisoners presumed recovered are housed at the Neuse Correctional Institution, which underwent prisonwide testing four weeks ago. There have been 467 positive tests among inmates at Neuse. Five prisoners statewide have died from COVID-19-related illness.
"We are not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot," Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee said in a news release this week, pointing to efforts to clean prisons, isolate the sick and limit prisoner movement. "We must remain vigilant."
Statewide, more than 15,800 positive tests have been reported as of Wednesday morning, with nearly 600 deaths, according to Department of Health and Human Services data. The agency estimated this week that more than 9,100 who have tested positive are likely to have recovered from their symptoms.
Positive tests have surfaced in 11 of the state's more than 50 prisons. No systemwide testing has occurred, however, with about 1,300 tests conducted so far.
The state prison system population has fallen by 2,000 offenders since mid-March to about 32,750 inmates as of Wednesday.
Several hundred additional prisoners went home in recent weeks due to initiatives designed to increase social distancing behind bars by reducing the offender population. Some were older inmates with underlying health conditions. Prison officials also have used "sentence credits" more liberally for those nearing their minimum sentence release dates.
Several state prisoners and civil rights groups say that's all not enough to ensure living conditions are safe. In a lawsuit, they want a judge or appointed expert to reduce the prison population further to ensure offenders are protected. Lawyers for the state argue in court documents that Gov. Roy Cooper's administration is best equipped to protect the health and safety of prisoners and had responded aggressively.
The prison system and the lawsuit's plaintiffs responded late last week to a judge's demand with additional data and details on how prisoners are being protected and options for transitional housing for those who are released. Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier has said he will hold a hearing before issuing any orders.
Case totals continue to grow at the state's meat-processing facilities, reaching more than 1,560 at 26 outbreaks in plants in 17 counties, a DHHS spokesperson said Wednesday. There were nearly 1,000 cases a week ago.
The department has declined to release the names of the plants, citing in part a health confidentiality law. But company officials have confirmed positive cases at North Carolina plants run by Smithfield, Mountaire Farms and Butterball.
The Tyson plant in Wilkesboro, where local health officials have confirmed an outbreak, was closed while a deep cleaning occurred over the weekend.