One in nearly four-thousand: NM prison COVID-19 testing shows strikingly low positive rate

New Mexico appears to have bucked another national trend. Just one of the nearly 4,000 inmates and staff tested in the state’s 11 prisons is positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, according to results released by the state Corrections Department on Friday. The lone positive result, according to a news release from department spokesman Eric Harrison, was for a correctional officer at the Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral, near the U.S. border with Mexico. The officer is now in self-quarantine at home, Harrison’s release said. Across the nation, prisons and jails have emerged as hotspots for COVID-19, with incarcerated populations and those who work to supervise them testing positive at alarmingly high rates in some places. 

Many inmates suffer from pre-existing health conditions that make them particularly susceptible to the often fatal consequences of COVID-19, leaving prisons with some of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S. as the pandemic continues its march.

Lujan Grisham administration says it will conduct wide-scale COVID-19 testing in NM prisons

New Mexico officials on Tuesday rolled out an ambitious plan to test for the new coronavirus in the state’s prisons. At a virtual news conference led by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, state Health Department Secretary Kathy Kunkel said all prison guards and staff — more than 1,800 people — would be tested by May 13. Officials plan to test 25% of the state’s 6,500-plus inmates by then as well, Kunkel said. Additionally, all newly arriving inmates will be tested and quarantined for 14 days, she said. The announcement marks a sharp turn for Lujan Grisham’s administration.

Failure of prison coronavirus testing in NM begs scrutiny

Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New MexicanGovernor Michelle Lujan Grisham delivers her weekly COVID19 press conference from the state capital. Six-thousand-five-hundred-fifty-eight people woke up Thursday morning behind bars in New Mexico’s 11 prisons, according to the state Department of Corrections. Just eight of them have been tested for the new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease, COVID-19. 

That’s a test rate of .0012%. The state employs about 1,800 people to supervise those inmates and oversee the lockups; it has ordered tests for 33 of them. The rate: 1.8%.

‘We’re stuck in here.’ Woman describes life inside Luna County jail during pandemic

The Luna County Detention Center holds 590 inmates at maximum capacity. As of Wednesday morning, just over 200 people were locked inside the jail in Deming, about 30 miles north of the Mexican border. Shauna Smith, a 43-year-old mother who has been incarcerated there since October, said the inmate population has been steadily thinning since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across New Mexico in early March. The county of roughly 24,000 people has seen just 347 tests for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, with three positive results as of Wednesday, according to the state Health Department. Like so many other jails and prisons around the state, few of those tests were performed at the Luna County Detention Center — four inmates and three staff members, all of whom were negative.