MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Worried relatives are demanding that Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly release some inmates to allow better social distancing to control the spread of the coronavirus in prisons, the corrections department said Wednesday, as an outbreak at one facility topped 150 cases and led to a second virus-related death.
Seventy-five members of staff at the Lansing Correction Facility have tested positive, amounting to 18% of the prison's workforce, according to data posted on the Kansas Department of Corrections' website. Fifteen of them have recovered and returned to work.
In addition, 79 inmates have been sickened, and one of them — a man serving a sentence for first-degree murder — died over the weekend. The department reported that an inmate at Lansing who died Wednesday tested positive for the coronavirus. He had been serving a life sentence for multiple counts of rape, other sex crimes, robbery and kidnapping.
Two inmates and three staffers at the women's prison in Topeka also tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, and a member of staff tested positive at the juvenile facility in Topeka.
Prisons nationwide have been hard-hit. In response to a federal lawsuit demanding the release of vulnerable inmates, Kelly has repeatedly said efforts are underway to identify inmates who are close to finishing their sentences and could be released early. She said Wednesday that she would make an announcement on that Thursday.
Corrections spokeswoman Rebecca Witte said the department has received hundreds of calls from family members and friends inquiring about Kelly's plan and "pleading the case for their loved one" to be released.
"We realize that everyone in our system is someone's sibling, someone's child, someones parent," Witte said. "And all of those people want their loved ones home with them."
Dr. Lee Norman, the state's health director, said officials on Tuesday tested 239 offenders at Lansing, including some without symptoms, to get a better sense of the scope of the outbreak.
Kelly also announced Wednesday that she would release her plan for reopening the state's economy on Thursday evening. The state of emergency will run out on Friday and her stay-at-home order, which was imposed to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the general population, runs out at midnight on Sunday.
A key challenge has been the state's low testing rate. But Kelly said at her daily briefing that the state has secured 500,000 test collection kits from overseas, with the first 5,000 coming soon. She said an additional 10,000 kits will be arriving on a weekly basis until the order is fulfilled. She said federal partners are sending another 25,000 testing kits this week and 25,000 more next week.
"There is no question that expanded tested for COVID-19 is the key to safely reopening the state and rebuilding our economy," Kelly said.
Kansas reported one additional COVID-19-related death Wednesday to bring the state's total to 125. The state had 3,738 people who have tested positive, up 247 from Tuesday.
Among those infected are 451 people at six meatpacking plants. Three southwest Kansas counties, where most of the plants are located, account for 1,285 cases, or 34.4% of the state's total, even though they have only 3.2% of the state's population, the latest numbers show.
Norman said he supports President Donald Trump's order to keep meatpacking plants open, adding that it will be a "challenge" but describing the public health efforts in the plants as "high quality."
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms 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, or death.