LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas prison staff who test positive for the coronavirus have been allowed to work at a facility where at least 876 inmates have the virus, a correction official said in a court document filed Tuesday.
Arkansas Division of Correction Director Dexter Payne said the agency has allowed staff who have tested positive to work at the Cummins Unit if they are asymptomatic. The staff are only allowed to work with inmates who have tested positive for the virus, he said.
Payne's comments detailing the policy were among documents filed in response to a lawsuit by inmates that accuses the prison system of not doing enough to prevent the virus's spread.
Payne said the agency is following recommendations issued by the Health Department last month that positive, asymptomatic staff be allowed to work only if there is a critical shortage of workers and as long as they follow other safeguards.
Dr. Nathaniel Smith, the state health secretary, said the "ideal" would be for staff who test positive to stay home.
"Obviously being short-staffed in a maximum security unit brings about its own dangers and so there's balancing risks there," Smith told reporters. Smith said the state has made similar allowances for some nursing homes with critical staffing shortages.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which represents the inmates in the lawsuit, said the policy shows the "deliberate indifference" officials have shown toward preventing the spread of the virus in the state's prisons. The group said the policy poses a major concern, even with the limits on where the staffers can work.
"They're not magically teleported from their home into a positive unit," Holly Dickson, the group's legal director and interim executive director, said. "They pass numerous people on their way to and from their shift assignment and in between."
Fifty-four staff at Cummins have tested positive for the coronavirus, and Smith said an additional 100 Cummins inmates are being tested. Five inmates have died at the prison from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
The Department of Corrections declined to say how many staff with the virus have worked at the facility, saying it could lead to their identification given the number who have tested positive. In Tuesday's filing, Payne said staff who have tested positive at other prisons also are reassigned to work with positive inmates at Cummins under the policy.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Health officials said the number of people in the state who have tested positive for the virus is 3,496, an increase over the 3,458 reported Monday. The true number is likely higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.
The number of deaths rose from 81 to 83.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson continued rolling back restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus. Hutchinson said the state will lift its ban on out-of-state recreational travelers at hotels, motels and short-term rentals.
Hutchinson said the state will require travelers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and New Orleans to self-quarantine for 14 days. Hutchinson said the state can adjust that rule if hot spots emerge elsewhere.
Arkansas was among a handful of states without a stay-at-home order, but had other restrictions the governor has lifted in recent days. Barber shops and hair salons are reopening on Wednesday but with new rules intended to prevent the virus's spread.
Little Rock officials announced Wednesday that the city is scaling back its nighttime curfew, which had been from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. to midnight until 5 a.m. The city said it intended to lift the curfew May 21.