BISMARCK — The number of COVID-19 cases has jumped in North Dakota's prison system, and the state is working to maintain the outbreak which could quickly spread in the close-quarter facilities.

The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported 76 positive cases among its residents statewide and 40 positive cases among staff as of Thursday, Oct. 22. The recent tally of cases among residents is more than a 75% increase from what the state reported on Oct. 16, with 43 residents positive at that time.

The state's prison system is doing what it can to control and prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the increase in cases is partly due to the number of cases increasing statewide, said Dave Krabbenhoft, interim director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"This is typical of what I think is happening everywhere," Krabbenhoft said. "COVID-19 has such a wide scope of how it affects people and we've experienced that scope."

Nationwide, more than 147,000 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began and 1,200 prisoners have died from COVID-19, according to The Marshall Project, a news outlet that's tracking COVID-19 cases in prisons.

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Krabbenhoft said no North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation staff members or facility residents have died from COVID-19 so far.

All facilities in the state prison system conduct weekly testing of residents to monitor the virus' spread, and staff self-screen themselves for COVID-19 symptoms and get their temperatures taken each day before reporting to work. Staff members are required to wear a face mask at all times, and residents are asked to wear them when they leave their cohort of cells.

In addition to routine testing, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation recently began wastewater testing at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, located in Bismarck, which has had the largest COVID-19 outbreak so far with 65 residents and 22 staff members testing positive as of Thursday.

The wastewater testing is in its beginning stages, Krabbenhoft said, and samples are sent twice a week to a lab at North Dakota State University for analysis. He said they will use the results to determine how often to conduct regular tests on inmates, though they could use the results of the analyses for other COVID-19 preventative measures as well.

Krabbenhoft said he encourages people to wear a face mask because they mitigate the spread of COVID-19 for not only those in the community, but for residents in the state's prison system as well.

"We don't want to have one of our facilities overrun local health care, so we're doing everything we can to mitigate the spread of the virus and control it," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.