No cases of COVID-19 in Virginia prisons, officials say — but no inmates have been tested

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RICHMOND, Va. (Virginia Mercury) — In a Sunday briefing, state officials said that there have been no cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus, among inmates at Virginia’s 40 state-run incarceration facilities.

But Brian Moran, the commonwealth’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, also said that no inmates have been tested for the virus, throwing the state’s official count into doubt.

“I’m not aware of any who have been tested for COVID,” he said. “Some have presented for testing and, frankly, have not met the guidelines instituted and followed by the Department of Health.

“That’s a piece of information we plan on being very transparent about,” Moran added.

Inmate health and safety has become a point of concern across the country amid a growing pandemic of coronavirus. Prison facilities, where inmates are usually densely housed, are particularly susceptible to outbreaks of the easily transmissible disease.

Thirty-eight inmates have already tested positive in New York City jails. Officials, there are in the process of identifying “vulnerable” residents and other inmates — such as those incarcerated for minor crimes — who could be eligible for release.

Other cities have already freed hundreds of inmates in an effort to create quarantined areas in often overcrowded prisons. In Virginia, Moran and Gov. Ralph Northam have canceled visitation at state-run facilities and implemented new screening protocols for offenders coming into state prisons from public jails. Local jails are also releasing inmates to reduce overcrowding.

Northam has also issued guidelines aimed at reducing the flow of new offenders into state-run facilities. They include sentence modifications to reduce prison populations, considering ways to reduce low-risk offenders that are being held without bail, and using alternative observation methods, such as home electronic monitoring instead of incarceration.