Two weeks back, the VIP Room here at the shebeen hosted Dr. Ken Starnes, an emergency room doctor working in rural Arkansas and Missouri. He talked about the unique difficulties of practicing medicine there during the time of pandemic. Starnes has now sent along this story from Arkansas public radio about the death from COVID-19 of one of the inmates in an Arkansas prison. According to a study by , correctional facilities are by far the most active vectors of the pandemic in this country.
Reuters collected data from 37 state prison facilities across the country that have done mass testing for COVID-19 among all inmates, including those with no symptoms, and found more than 10,000 confirmed cases among the 44,000 tested. There were 91 deaths from the disease at those facilities, which span 10 states.
One of those people was Derick Coley, a 29-year-old inmate at the Cummins Unit, an Arkansas state prison in Lincoln County. From :
Cecelia Tate and Derick Coley were raising their 8-year-old daughter together. Tate was listed as an emergency contact, so she was the one the prison would communicate with. “I just kept calling, they just kept saying he’s not showing no more symptoms.” Tate says a prison nurse told her Coley had tested positive for COVID-19, but that his fever had gone down and he was doing fine. However, family members of other people incarcerated at Cummins were reaching out to tell her that Coley was really sick. “Then, the next thing I know, at 1:37 a.m., May 3rd, I got a call from the chaplain telling me he had passed,” Tate said.
This is inexcusable, but understandable. The pandemic collided head-on with 30 years of outsourcing and the privatization of the country’s penal system, which happened simultaneously with the explosion of incarcerated Americans. The results have been catastrophic.
Arkansas pays Wellpath, formerly known as Correct Care Solutions, about . But two nurses interviewed for this report claim that Wellpath spends as little of that money as possible. Amie Burrow worked in Arkansas prisons as a nurse practitioner for a year and a half, leaving in November 2019. She says that when she was hired, Wellpath’s regional manager told her, “As the provider, you make the decision of what's needed. If you order this, we will get it for them.”
Burrow says that did not happen. Instead, the administrator at her prison often denied requests for medical supplies or chose cheaper, but higher risk medications. with the Department of Corrections shows that the Cummins Unit has one doctor, fewer than four nurse practitioners or registered nurses, and fewer than fourteen licensed practical nurses, or LPNs. LPNs are neither trained nor medically allowed to assess patients without supervision. Wellpath’s policy manual is not public, but nurses say that LPNs are the ones who evaluate prisoners when they place sick calls.
Which meant that Derick Coley’s life in prison was ground up between the implacable progress of the pandemic and a faceless—and merciless—pursuit of profit that has been grafted onto what once were public services and obligations.
Burrow says she reported her concerns to the Board of Corrections chairman, but was told Wellpath is a private company and his hands were tied. She then reported her concerns to Wellpath management and was fired three weeks later. Each sick call costs prisoners $3, which can add up for a population paid nothing for their daily work. The Department of Corrections eliminated the copay on March 23 due to COVID-19. However, Secretary Kelley reinstated the fee on May 1.
In , Kelley said the medical staff was flooded with requests to be seen. She said the fee would continue to be waived for inmates with COVID-19 symptoms, but nurses would be the ones to determine whether someone’s symptoms were COVID-related. Medical records show Derick Coley was too weak to walk to the infirmary the day he was tested for COVID-19. He was quarantined in isolation. For the next two weeks, nurses’ notes claim Coley had no complaints. But another prisoner who was in isolation at the time said prisoners near Coley had been asking nurses to evaluate Coley, who they saw getting steadily weaker.
Luckily, the staff there was first rate...never mind, I’ll show myself out.
The said staff were moving Coley to another part of the prison around the time of the unrest when he had a medical episode. Medical records say that when nurses arrived, Coley was on the floor outside the prison’s isolation unit. His lips were pale and he was struggling to breathe. It appears the most trained medical staff in the prison that night were licensed practical nurses. The only physician for Cummins, who records say the nurses were in touch with that night, has a revoked medical license. The Arkansas State Medical Board has given him permission to keep practicing as long as he reports to them. three times over the last 20 years due to drug use, including treating patients while under the influence. It was last revoked in 2018.
The nation is mottled with tragedies now, symptoms of deeper and older plagues.
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