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Third inmate dies of COVID-19 at Belmont prison

A third inmate who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus at Belmont Correctional Institution has died. New precautions are said to be in place at the prison, and a National Guard team is on site assisting staff.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Inmates are voicing concerns about what they believe are unsafe conditions inside Belmont Correctional Institution, where three prisoners have died of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, an employee of the Belmont County Department of Job and Family Services has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Belmont County Health Department Deputy Director Robert Sproul confirmed the third inmate death Tuesday morning. A second inmate death was reported over the weekend as the concentration of positive cases among inmates and staff became a matter of concern for the state.

When contacted by text Tuesday evening, Sproul said his office has received copies of letters from inmates about conditions at the prison, including allegations of failures to follow prescribed procedures. Sproul did not discuss the letters in detail but said he believed they were sent to other agencies, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

The first inmate death was reported last week. Sproul said the patient was a man in his 60s with underlying health conditions. He said he has not been given information about the ages or the state of other infected inmates’ health. State officials have jurisdiction in the prison, which houses nearly 2,500 offenders, with Sproul’s department involved only in contacting people who might have contracted the virus from staff or their family members.

“We just have the verification of death, so hopefully we’re going to get more detail,” he said.

This brings the total number of Belmont County residents who have died after testing positive for the coronavirus to 10. Sproul said all but the latest two inmates have been confirmed to have had underlying health conditions.

In response to the high number of cases among prison staff, members of the National Guard have been deployed to lend assistance.

According to Stephanie Beougher, spokeswoman for the National Guard, a nine-member team is already “on mission” taking temperatures, measuring vitals and otherwise providing support at the institution. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Annette Chambers-Smith announced Monday that new sanitation measures and screening procedures are in place at the facility.

According to the latest information from coronavirus.ohio.gov, the prison was housing 81 inmates who had tested positive as of Tuesday; this is compared to reports of 100 positive cases among inmates Monday, with 60 listed as recovered and two with pending test results. The state website still listed just two inmate deaths at BeCI on Tuesday.

In addition, 76 BeCI employees have tested positive for COVID-19, with two awaiting test results.

Sproul said Belmont County’s total positive cases increased to 365 Tuesday compared to Monday’s 345, with 187 recoveries. Eight people are hospitalized.

“We basically have a couple more we’re looking at to try and verify,” Sproul said at the end of the day Tuesday.

He also confirmed one of the positive test results was for an employee of the DJFS office.

“There was an employee who tested positive. We spoke with her and her list of contacts and with the facility about cleaning,” Sproul said. “They have been working half-staffed already and were wearing masks and social distancing. I have not heard of any disruption (of operations).”

Sproul also commented on a news release from Sheetz in St. Clairsville, stating an employee there has tested positive for the virus but has not worked at the location since early May 11. It states the business will remain open and continue to adhere to sanitary measures.

“We’re being told (the infected person) quarantined in time, so we’re just monitoring anybody they consider their contacts and doing the investigation like we would do in all the other situations, verifying contacts,” Sproul said.

In other matters, Sproul said his office has received no complaints so far about businesses failing to follow safety protocols during the gradual reopening of the state’s economy.

“The real test is going to be when they open everything up for the sit-down (restaurants on Thursday),” Sproul said. “Now, they can only continue to do take-outs, and they continue to do deck dining. … They just can’t be inside ’til May 21.”

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