Pa. SCI Somerset prison records first COVID death

Cells are shown in a cleared prison wing.

Cells are shown in a cleared prison wing. (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

An unidentified 73-year-old man has succumbed to COVID-19 at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution – Somerset, the first such death at the Western Pennsylvania prison.

The man, who was serving out a one-and-a-half to six-year sentence, died at a local hospital on Dec. 10. He entered the prison in October.

“We continue our battle against this dangerous invisible enemy,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in response to the death. “With fall upon us, we are experiencing a resurgence. That is why it is vital to continue our aggressive mitigation efforts. We cannot let our guard down.”

Poor ventilation, close quarters and the logistics of incarceration have made prisons particularly susceptible as vectors of transmission. Both prisoner rights and public health advocates have called for release of at least some prisoners since the beginning of the pandemic to prevent virus spread.

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SCI Somerset, built to hold 1,600 prisoners, reported 149 active cases of COVID-19 among people incarcerated there and 48 among staff. About 40 incarcerated people statewide have died due to the pandemic, but the numbers have crept up. Twenty deaths were reported just in November.

A Department of Corrections spokesperson said the system has fared better than state long-term care facilities, with a lower rate of COVID casualties. DOC policy states prisoners that test positive be kept in isolation either at the prison or at local hospitals. Employees that test positive must isolate at home.

“We are experiencing the same thing that our counties are experiencing, and we are following very strict procedures to mitigate the virus’ impact on our state prisons,” Wetzel said.


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