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Over 500 Arizona inmates test positive amid slowing virus

August 6, 2020 GMT
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A large homeless encampment is shown Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, in Phoenix. Maricopa County officials said Wednesday there have been 490 cases of homeless people infected with the virus since the pandemic began among the county's approximately 7,400 homeless, with at least nine people self-identifying as homeless have died in Maricopa County. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
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A large homeless encampment is shown Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, in Phoenix. Maricopa County officials said Wednesday there have been 490 cases of homeless people infected with the virus since the pandemic began among the county's approximately 7,400 homeless, with at least nine people self-identifying as homeless have died in Maricopa County. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona corrections officials have said that 517 inmates at the state prison in Tucson have tested positive for the coronavirus even as the overall spread in the state seems to be turning a corner.

And state health officials on Wednesday reported 1,698 newly confirmed coronavirus cases and 87 additional deaths.

The state has documented 182,203 COVID-19 infections and 3,932 deaths overall, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Arizona’s seven-day average for newly reported cases was 2,081.57 as of Tuesday, the lowest since June 19, according to tracking by The Associated Press. The seven-day average of newly reported deaths fell to 62.43, the lowest since July 14.

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Nevertheless, corrections officials revealed Tuesday night that almost half the inmates in the Whetstone unit of the Arizona State Prison Complex in Tucson tested positive for the virus Tuesday amid a push to test all 39,000 state prisoners.

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry declined to say if the agency or its health care provider had any suspicions or indications on how the virus spread through the inmate population within Whetstone.

Corene Kendrick, an attorney representing inmates in a lawsuit that challenges the quality of health care in Arizona’s prisons, said it’s hard for inmates to socially distance at the Whetstone unit, because prisoners are housed in close quarters in huge dorm rooms.

“My concern is whether it will spread to other (prison) yards in Tucson,” Kendrick said.

The American Friends Service Committee-Arizona, which advocates for an end to mass incarceration, says the rate of infection at Whetstone wasn’t an accident, but rather a result of neglect. The group said the Department of Corrections has been slow to take measures to protect inmates, such as waiting too long to provide them with masks.

The agency said it has taken actions to mitigate the spread of the virus at its prisons, such as rigorous symptom checks and other safety measures. “Keeping our staff, inmates and communities safe continues to be our top priority,” the agency said.

In all, the agency has reported more than 1,400 prisoners have tested positive, and 21 inmates had died for the virus since the pandemic began. Officials say 564 corrections employees have tested positive.

Ron Coleman, a spokesman for Maricopa County, said Wednesday that there have been 490 cases of homeless people infected with the virus since the pandemic began among the county’s approximately 7,400 homeless.

At least nine people self-identifying as homeless have died in Maricopa County, including one person at a shelter, Coleman said.

The county has rented 141 beds at hotels around the Phoenix metro area for homeless individuals who are either considered especially vulnerable for the coronavirus, need to isolate while awaiting test results or need medical care after testing positive, said Rachel Milne, assistant director of housing and community development for Maricopa County’s Human Services Department. She said the local nonprofit organization Circle the City is providing the medical care.

Milne said on Wednesday, 28 people diagnosed with the coronavirus were being cared for at a Phoenix hotel while another nine people with symptoms were isolated there, awaiting their test results.

But the overall spread of the coronavirus in Arizona has gradually slowed amid requirements for face coverings and a statewide order closing businesses such as bars and gyms after Arizona emerged as a virus hotspot.

The number of Arizona hospital patients confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19 fell below 2,000 on Tuesday for the first time in more than six weeks, state health officials said. The total of 1,945 was the lowest since June 20.

And the number of COVID-19 patients in ICU beds fell to 618, the fewest since June 24.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.

However, for some people who contract the virus, especially those who are older or have underlying health conditions, it can cause more severe illness and death.

The vast majority of people diagnosed with COVID-19 recover.

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Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.